Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee by Marja Mills

Reading Marja Mills’ memoir of her brief time spent with Nelle Harper Lee has much in common with mining for gold.  The successful prospector must sift through tons of dross to acquire a few nuggets of gold.  I expected much, much more insight into the author of the great, iconic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.  Instead I got a load of information I found irrelevant, uninteresting, and completely lacking in insight to Harper Lee.

Our book club read the Charles J. Shields’ unauthorized biography of Nelle Lee, Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee a few years ago.  We all thoroughly enjoyed the tantalizingly brief insights into her life.  Lee is widely known as unwilling to give interviews, speak at public functions, or sign copies of her book.  A first edition of TKAM runs to nearly $40,000.  Had Mills’ book not appeared on my club’s reading list, I would have imitated the writer Helene Hanff, who threw a book against the wall, which disappointed her.

Marja Mills was a reporter for The Chicago Tribune.  The Chicago Public Library had chosen To Kill a Mockingbird as the first selection for the “One Book, One Chicago” reading program.  Mills’ editor asked her to travel to Monroeville, Alabama, and see if she could find enough information about the reclusive Harper Lee for a long feature story.

Mills wrote to Nelle’s sister, Alice, and politely asked if she could meet with her.  Alice, and later Nelle, began meeting with Mills, and a friendship gradually emerged.  Mills later moved into the house next door to Alice and Nelle.  The three women shared many of their daily routines.  Sounds great, right?  No.

The first thing that annoyed me was the insertion of Mills into the story.  I detest “new journalism” – ironically pioneered by Truman Capote a close friend of Harper’s when they were children.  Harper assisted Capote in researching his best selling work, In Cold Blood.  Lee detested “new journalism” – according to Mills in the early pages of the memoir.  The Lee sisters were always gracious and patient with Mills and gave her a unique insight into the lives of the two sisters.  The least Mills could have done was remove the tons of dross cluttering up this memoir.

Only available photo of Marja Mills
Secondly, I found the repetitious nature of her writing highly annoying.  After a couple of mentions, I began counting how many times Mills told the reader A.C. Lee – Nelle and Alice’s father – was the model for Atticus Finch.  I counted five times.  I also found her teasing very off-putting.  She would begin a story, then suddenly drop it, as though she was told that particular story was off the record.  She also mentioned a secret fishing hole the sisters enjoyed, but after mentioning how hard it was to find, she gave detailed directions to the spot.  Topping this list of complaints were a couple of chapters devoted solely to Mills personal situation, with only a mention she had to cancel a trip for coffee to a local fast-food restaurant.

Mills could have easily written a biography of Alice Lee, who played an important roll in the life of Nelle and in the friendship Mills was able to develop.  At more than 90 years of age, she continued to work as a lawyer in Monroeville.

My only hope is that Marja Mills has gathered enough information for a complete and authorized biography of Harper Lee, which was given to her on the proviso that the book not be published until after her death.  For all these reasons, Nelle and Alice each get a star for their charm, politeness, and hospitality toward Mills, so that helps Mockingbird Next Door reach 3 stars.

--Chiron, 5/30/15

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