The Mockingbird Next Door: Life With Harper Lee

I began the fall semester by publishing two articles for The Beacon  discussing the work of Harper Lee. In the articles, I have covered the controversy surrounding Lee’s newly published text as well as my own review of her new work, Go Set A Watchman. In the interest of bringing my book review column full circle, I would like to review the recently published text, The Mockingbird Next Door: Life With Harper Lee, composed by Marja Mills. The Mockingbird Next Door tells the story of the notoriously private Harper Lee and her sister Alice.

Mills, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist working with The Chicago Tribune, spent 18 months between the Fall of 2004 and the Spring of 2005 renting a “modest” home next to Nelle Harper Lee and her sister Alice Lee in their hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. In 2004, Mills finds herself in Monroeville on assignment from The Chicago Tribune, when To Kill A Mockingbird was named the inaugural book for “The One Book, One Chicago” campaign. The campaign originated as a pathway to encouraging younger readers to discover classic works as well as having everyone in the Chicago metropolitan area discussing the same text.

Mills herself had no idea where “The One Book, One Chicago’ campaign would lead. Sent on assignment to talk to those who lived in Monroeville regarding the impact of Lee’s text and to photographically document the town’s homage to To Kill A Mockingbird, Mills never could have imagined she would be drawn into the Lee sisters’ confidence.

When reading The Mockingbird Next Door, a reader finds stories of small town southern charm and characters as lively as any fictional representation that have previously sprung off the page. The small town charisma oozes from each page as most of the stories recorded take place over coffee in Lees’ or Mills’ kitchens or while traveling the backwoods of picturesque Alabama.

Similarly to other works regarding Harper Lee, controversy behind the text’s publication was soon to follow. Mills claims she gained the Lee sisters’ confidence and interviewed their close family friends. Mills also maintains any story which was deemed off the record stayed off the record. For Mills, the text was more about preserving the oral traditions of the south as told through Harper and Alice.

Further, when the idea for The Mockingbird Next Door was conceptualized, Mills states Harper Lee was supportive. However, soon after the book’s publication Harper Lee released the following statement: “Rest assured, as long as I am alive any book purporting to be with my cooperation is a falsehood.” Mills maintains she had both sisters’ cooperation and Harper’s statement was written shortly after she suffered a stroke which left her confused.

I choose to believe Mills’ version of events for several reasons. First, I find other text written about Harper to be sensationalized. Mills also inquires as to Harper’s disappearance from the public eye. Mills is perfectly happy to simply transcribe Harper Lee’s answers rather than fabricate answers that would gain more press.

Mills writes Lee’s non-outlandish responses to the inquiries. Mills writes, Lee never published a second work and disappeared from the public eye because of the overbearing media. Lee disliked the sexist criticism of her work. Mills easily could have exaggerated Lee’s responses but instead Mills is content to speculate no further than Lee would allow.

Furthermore, the family friends of the Lee sisters have not withdrawn their statements/stories and have spoken words of praise for Mills. Mills allows The Mockingbird Next Door to be just as much about Harper Lee as it is about Alice Lee. Readers discover long awaited truths surrounding Harper Lee. However, the reader is privileged to learn about Alice Lee, who Harper calls, “Atticus in a skirt.” Readers discover Alice practiced law at her law firm until the age of 100; she died recently on November 17, 2014 at the age of 103.  Alice is often thought of as the inspiration for the beloved Atticus Finch character. Alice was often the first women to hold a leadership position on many activist and professional boards.

Personally, I hope The Mockingbird Next Door is a true account of Harper and Alice Lee since it showcases two historically significant women without sensationalized exaggeration while being blanketed in southern charm and immersed in a world forgotten.