The riddle of Harper Lee
BookPage Nonfiction Top Pick, July 2014
“In the summer of 2005, I was at a Burger King with Harper Lee.” With those tantalizing opening words, former Chicago Tribune reporter Marja Mills has us hooked. We want to know not just why the reclusive Harper Lee is talking to a journalist, but also why she and the novelist are sitting in a Burger King, of all places.
In The Mockingbird Next Door, a winning and affectionate account of her friendship with the noted author, Mills invites us to sit down on her front porch while she regales us with tales of Nelle Harper Lee and her sister, Alice, and the denizens of their hometown.
In 2001, Mills’ editor offered her what would turn out to be the assignment of a lifetime: Go to Monroeville, Alabama, and report on her experience of the town. Within a short time, she is chatting with Alice, and later Nelle, as she is known to family and friends, comes over to Mills’ motel room for a talk. A friendship eventually blossoms, and in 2004, Mills moves in next door to the Lees for almost two years.
Mills reveals no great secrets here, nor does she tell us more about the author than Lee herself wants to share. She offers no clues to solve the mystery of why Lee never wrote another novel after the 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning classic To Kill a Mockingbird. As Alice Lee simply declares: “There were so many demands made on her. . . . People wanted her to speak to groups. She would be terrified to speak.”
What Mills’ portrait of the Lees does show is a pair of sisters who love feeding ducks at the local pond, who enjoy language and a good pun and who admire all things British. Nelle is spirited and can be impatient and suspicious, and Alice, who is still practicing law in her 90s, is the “steady, responsible, older sister.”
During her stay in Monroeville, Mills discovers a woman who is fiercely private yet willing to share her thoughts about the small-town South, her family and her writing life with a stranger whose own life has been deeply shaped by Lee’s famous novel. The Mockingbird Next Door offers a tender look at one of our most beloved and enigmatic writers, as well as the town that inspired her.
This article was originally published in the July 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.