Published by Penguin Press on July 15th, 2014
Genres: Historical, Memoir, Non-fiction
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is one of the best loved novels of the twentieth century. But for the last fifty years, the novel’s celebrated author, Harper Lee, has said almost nothing on the record. Journalists have trekked to her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, where Harper Lee, known to her friends as Nelle, has lived with her sister, Alice, for decades, trying and failing to get an interview with the author. But in 2001, the Lee sisters opened their door to Chicago Tribune journalist Marja Mills. It was the beginning of a long conversation—and a great friendship.
In 2004, with the Lees’ blessing, Mills moved into the house next door to the sisters. She spent the next eighteen months there, sharing coffee at McDonalds and trips to the Laundromat with Nelle, feeding the ducks and going out for catfish supper with the sisters, and exploring all over lower Alabama with the Lees’ inner circle of friends.
Nelle shared her love of history, literature, and the Southern way of life with Mills, as well as her keen sense of how journalism should be practiced. As the sisters decided to let Mills tell their story, Nelle helped make sure she was getting the story—and the South—right. Alice, the keeper of the Lee family history, shared the stories of their family.
The Mockingbird Next Door is the story of Mills’s friendship with the Lee sisters. It is a testament to the great intelligence, sharp wit, and tremendous storytelling power of these two women, especially that of Nelle.
Mills was given a rare opportunity to know Nelle Harper Lee, to be part of the Lees’ life in Alabama, and to hear them reflect on their upbringing, their corner of the Deep South, how To Kill a Mockingbird affected their lives, and why Nelle Harper Lee chose to never write another novel.
Sufficed to say, I am a huge fan of To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. My oldest daughter’s name is Scout. I read the book at age ten, when I was completely oblivious of the lure of boys, much less the thought of children, but the character imprinted me in an indescribable way, and from the time I started dreaming of the daughter I would one day have, I knew her name would be Scout. I know that I am not alone in this rite. An American classic novel, TKAM has spawned countless children, cats, and dogs who proudly carry the monikers, Scout, Atticus, and Harper. The Pulitzer Prize winning novel has shaped the minds and hearts of readers worldwide.
Now, imagine that the literary idol responsible for all this lives in your small, Alabama hometown. TKAM has always found its way into classrooms across America, be it north, south, east or west, but here in Monroe County, Alabama, it was woven into the very fabric of our everyday lives. Scout, Atticus, and Tom Robinson were not just characters, there were akin to neighbors, family, members of our community.
Everyone has them. Great novels that you read as a child/adolescent. They change us in ways that readings later in life cannot. They become a part of the people we grow up to be. TKAM was the first book to teach me that villains don’t always wear masks or the faces of monsters. Sometimes, they are neighbors, friends of the family, ordinary people. And the same for heroes. A little girl with the courage to stand up for what is right trumps capes and superpowers any day of the week.
I met her once, without even realizing it. This woman who inspired my imagination and my humanity. I was working in the local jewelry store, and she came in to have the battery in her watch changed, and her watch cleaned. She smiled as I greeted her, and after I filled out the tag with “Nelle Lee,” she thanked me, and walked out the door. One of my older coworkers asked, “Do you know who that was?” I shook my head. “Harper Lee.” My world tilted on its axis a little bit. I had just interacted with one of my literary idols without even knowing it. I wasn’t working the day she came back in to pick up her watch. Initially disappointed, I came to realize that it was probably better than way. I feared my ability to contain my excitement and the gravity that her presence conveyed to me, would tarnish our pleasant rapport with attention the private author would bristle at garnering.
All that brings me to The Mockingbird Next Door by Marja Mills. When stumbling upon the publication of the book, I bought it immediately. But, between four children and long hours at work, it was given priority stacking on my ever growing To Be Read pile. When my small hometown was set abuzz with the news of the upcoming release of a recently discovered “lost work” of Harper Lee, Go Set A Watchman, I picked up TMND, and wanted to kick myself for not having enjoyed this novel sooner.
As all lovers of TKAM, and certainly those residing here in Monroeville, we find ourselves terminally curious about the reclusive author. But the regard in which I hold her novel, is the same pedestal of respect that on which I place the author. At twenty, I gleamed the sanctity of enjoying an interaction with my favorite author that afforded her the anonymity she preferred to cloak herself with. And as hotly as the questions about the novel and the author herself burned inside me, it would be a boon, ill gotten, if it was obtained at the sacrifice of the author’s wishes.
I started the novel with zeal, and as my loyalty to Nelle Harper Lee mandated, an appropriate amount of skepticism about the author’s motivation for the novel coinciding with the wishes of the subject of her novel. Thirty pages in, I no longer had any worries. Marja Mills is indeed the “contradiction” of a “class act journalist” that Harper Lee deemed her to be. Otherwise, she’d never have been trusted with the history of the Mockingbird next door. I didn’t not feel like a voyeur peering into the life of a literary master, but as if Mills folded me into this social gathering of people to listen to their stories. I felt like a kid propped up on my grandmother’s kitchen counter, listening to her tell me each ingredient and step involved in making her famed sour cream pound cake. And so Mills gave us the recipe for extraordinary, yet down to earth lives of the Lee sisters.
This novel was a joyful and captivating read for me. It would be for any Harper Lee fan, but each turn of the story that involved a person that I know or a place that I had been, whether once or frequently, made me feel that much more part of the story, and connected to Harper Lee in a ‘six degrees of separation’ kind of way. Mills conveys the details of their lives in a way that even learning unexpected things come across in a sentiment that this is the way it is supposed to be. And I am always grateful and thankful when the positive aspects and histories of the state of Alabama can be brought to the forefront for the world to see. Goodness knows, we do a good enough job spotlighting our own faults.
One of the things I loved about TMND was that it gave me an outside perspective on Harper Lee, the phenomenon of TKAM, and the real life Maycomb County that I reside in. I drank in the fresh perspective of someone who did not grow up living and breathing the world of Atticus Finch, and how it affected them. It warmed my heart that a ‘yankee’ (*winks*) could find simple beauty in a rural world vastly different from her own.
Mills captures perfectly the ebb and flow of small town Alabama life, and how it changed from the alien to the familiar to her. I found her chronicle of these bright women both respectful and natural. And just as I imagined the eclectic world of the Lee sisters to be.
Marja Mills has my gratitude that her genuine nature was able to shine through that fateful Alabama afternoon, when a great lawyer and a great author opened their door and their lives to her that we are all the better for gleaming life lessons from two exceptional women, years in the courtroom, and great American novel aside.
Four out of five stars