Marja Mills is no Joe McGinnis, thank heaven. (McGinnis rented a house next door to Sarah Palin's Wasilla home to do in-your-face research for an unauthorized biography, The Rogue: Searching for the Real Sarah Palin.) So if you're reading The Mockingbird Next Door out of a desire to learn the darkest secrets of the world-famous author of To Kill A Mockingbird, forget it. You'll be reading what Harper Lee feeds the ducks (corn, out of a Cool Whip carton), where she buys her clothing (the hometown Walmart), where she goes for her exercise class (the Community House, just up the hill from the duck pond); what she likes to eat (barbeque at Melvin's); and what movies she chooses ("Yes, Prime Minister"). Nelle Harper Lee and her older sister Alice Finch Lee are down-home gals. Their down-home lifestyle is the focus of this down-home memoir.
In 2001, Marja Mills' Chicago Tribune editor assigned her to a feature story on reclusive Harper Lee. With journalistic hutzpah, she knocked on the front door of the Lees' Monroeville, Alabama, home. Elderly Alice (then in her 90s) answered the door, invited Mills in, and the two quickly became friends. The next day, Harper Lee, fifteen years younger and known to be fiercely protective of her privacy, called and invited herself to Mills' Best Western motel room. The two hit it off, Mills says, and it wasn't long before she was being introduced to the Lees' trusted friends as someone who would be writing about the Lee family and the sisters' lives in Monroeville. "She's a contradiction," Harper (famously antagonistic to reporters) would say. "She's a class-act journalist."
Not long after that, Mills took a disability leave from the Tribune and, with the encouragement of Alice and Harper, rented the house next door to the Lee sisters. Her 17-month residency (2004-2005) gave her time for repeated interviews with Alice and Nelle; their closest friends (Tom and Hilda Butts, the Croft family) and relatives (nephew Ed Lee, sister-in-law Sara Anne Curry); the Lees' household helper, Julia Munnerlyn; and various townspeople. Mills followed every lead the sisters gave her, took careful notes, documented her sources, and continually checked with both Alice and Nelle to find out whether a piece of information was "on the record" or "off."
The book she has produced from her research is an accurate depiction of the lives of two elderly Southern women in a small Southern town. It doesn't dig up dirt or poke around in shadowy corners looking for a hidden answer to that most often asked question, "Why didn't Harper Lee write a second novel?" Instead, it skirts all the down-deep personal issues and focuses on the day-to-day, the ordinary, the prosaic—to an extent that some readers may find tedious. (Some people will not be charmed by repeated trips to feed the ducks and drink coffee at McDonald's.) If the book strikes you as somewhat superficial, however, it may be that you were expecting Harper Lee to be more ... well, more like a famous author, less commonplace, more "literary." In other words, Mills may have done the best she could with the material at hand.
But this story has another chapter—a controversial chapter that may be even more interesting than the book itself. It seems to have taken Mills some time to pull the material together and market it to a publisher. It eventually went to Penguin, and its publication was announced in 2011. Harper Lee (who suffered a stroke in 2007 and was moved to an assisted-living facility) was quick on the trigger with a rebuttal, insisting that she had not "willingly participated in any book written or to be written by Marja Mills." In reply, Mills produced a letter from Alice Lee, reiterating that both sisters had cooperated on the book and adding pityingly, "Poor Nelle Harper can't see and can't hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence. [Translation: the lawyers did it.] Now she has no memory of the incident."
Fast forward to 2014 and publication. Well, not "fast," actually. A book is usually published within 12-18 months of its announcement. The thirty-some months that elapsed between early 2011 and mid-2014 were probably spent in close consultation with Penguin's legal team and a fine-tooth-comb dissection of Mills' manuscript, making sure that she could defend every claim. Nevertheless, when the book came out last month, Harper Lee (through her lawyers) said the same thing again, asserting that it hadn't taken her "long to discover Marja's true mission; another book about Harper Lee. I was hurt, angry and saddened, but not surprised."
What to make of this? It is certainly true that a book about Harper Lee would attract a great deal more attention than one about Alice Lee and the little town of Monroeville. And while Mills puts Harper Lee in her title and at the forefront of her published book, a careful reading suggests that, at least initially, the project was perhaps of more interest and importance to Alice, who had long been urged by family and friends to put her recollections on paper. "I pulled out my tape recorder and began the slow, deliberate, and often enthralling project of recording oral histories of Alice Lee and her friends and neighbors in Monroeville," Mills writes. Throughout the book, she describes long sit-down tape-recorded sessions with Alice, but shorter, almost incidental meetings with Nelle, when they are sight-seeing, feeding the ducks, going to Peggy Van's exercise class, or having breakfast at Wanda's Kountry Kitchen. It's almost possible to believe that Harper thought she was just being nice to her sister's oral historian, and was indeed surprised (and "hurt, angry and saddened") when the book turned out to be very much about her, instead.
If you're looking for an in-depth study of Harper Lee's phenomenal literary success and the dry years that followed, you may be better served by Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, by Charles Shields (another book that was scorned by Miss Lee). But The Mockingbird Next Door succeeds as a memoir of the two years Marja Mills spent living across the driveway from the most famous person in Monroeville, Alabama. And if you like your biscuits with sawmill gravy and your nights slow and easy and honeysuckle-scented, you will certainly enjoy it.
Marja Mills is a former reporter and feature writer for the Chicago Tribune, where she was a member of the staff that won a Pulitzer Prize for a 2001 series about O'Hare Airport entitled "Gateway to Gridlock." The Mockingbird Next Door is her first book. Visit her website.
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