Review: The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee

July 15, 2014 book review, memoir, non fiction 7

The Mockingbird Next Door
  • Written By:  Marja Mills
  • Published By:  The Penguin Press July 15, 2014
  • Length:  288 pages
  • Source:  Edelweiss with permission of publisher in consideration of an honest review

SummaryTo 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. (Goodreads)

My Thoughts:   Few books have touched my soul the way To Kill a Mockingbird has.  The first time I read it I was probably 11 or 12, there was a copy in our house.  I’d seen the movie but I wanted to read the book and as I read the words Harper Lee wrote to describe the life of Scout Finch and her life in the imaginary Macomb Alabama, I was taken to the very town she shared with us.  I’m only one person who has wished for years for more from Ms. Lee, but alas it hasn’t been a reality.

Nelle Harper Lee is private and reclusive about  her life.  She’s been what others call quirky while keeping her life private.  I like to think I would be respectful of her space but I also know it would be difficult not to ask her a million questions about her characters, their motivations and actions.  Did she ever consider a sequel  to TKAM, did she fall in love with Atticus, Scout and Jem too?  I think the answer to the last question is yes.

Marja Mills approached her goals in learning about the real Nelle and her sister Alice in a tender and honest way.  She did not over step her welcome.  This books is the telling of the time Marga spent in Monroeville slowly getting to know Alice and Nelle Harper Lee.  She also had the good fortune to become their friend, and share many friends and social outings with the sisters, both together and separately.  Reading this account was beautiful and emotional.  As a fan of Harper Lee I turned pages to learn more of her pleasures and pastimes, how does she live, what does she do with friends, who does she trust and admire.  What are her own thoughts on the rumors that have surrounded her silence?  While I didn’t get all my answers so very much was addressed by Ms. Mills.

There is controversy about the permission given  by Harper Lee, sadly she says she didn’t give it, the author says she had it.  While this isn’t a book so much about Harper Lee’s life as much as it a recount of the time Ms Mills lived by the sisters and  a tale of how the sisters live and still hold close to the moral precepts their father gave them.  He was the model that Lee used as she wrote the character Atticus Finch.

I enjoyed this book completely, and the timing is perfect.  I purchased the audio of To Kill a Mockingbird last week, read by Sissy Spacek, and I’ll be thinking of Nelle Harper Lee and the gift she gave us with beautiful words.  I’ll also be thinking of the thoughtful Ms Mills, and the precious gift of time she shared with the author.   Highly recommend.

I’m not a fan of Amazon, but this is a link to a wonderful essay by author Marja Mills.

7 Responses to “Review: The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee”

  1. Rita @ My Home of Books

    I so want to read this book, pronto! A summer reread of To Kill A Mockingbird is calling me, now.
    I am a bit confused about whether or not the author really had permission to print the sisters’ comments. Would it be giving away a spoiler to give your own opinion on it, or should I just read it first and then ask?
    Thanks again for spotlighting a new to me title!

    • Anita

      Unless the author is making up the time and conversations she had with Nelle I believe she did have her permission. Sadly I think Nelle may not want the book published now, her mind may not be as clear as it once was. I hate to say that as I admire Nelle Harper Lee so much.
      It’s true she spent time with Nelle and Alice and the friends they share. I found the book really well done and respectful.

  2. Sarah @ Sarah's Book Shelves

    I remember reading TKAM in high school – I’m adding this book to my TBR list! It sounds great. I feel like books about reclusive authors could be a budding trend?? This one and My Salinger Year…

  3. Lisa

    When I started your review I was wondering if you had heard that Lee says she didn’t give permission and wondered if that would impact your impression of the book. Clearly it’s still a book worth reading.

  4. Anita

    Congratulations on the new site! You’re moving in the right direction. 🙂

    Good post here; so much that I Googled the story and read a little more about other’s opinions of the book and the controversy.

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