Heller McAlpin reviews books regularly for The Washington Post, NPR.org, Los Angeles Times and other publications.
There are many reasons to be grateful for “The Mockingbird Next Door,” Marja Mills’s wonderful memoir of Harper Lee and her sister, and being enticed to re-read “To Kill a Mockingbird” is just one of them. Improbable as it seemed even to Mills when she first was granted access to the two fiercely private women in 2001, she has written an authorized, intimate portrait of the reclusive author and her older sister, Alice Finch Lee, who still practiced law (“sweetly, quietly, and lethally,” in her famous sister’s estimation) through her 90s in their home town of Monroeville, Ala.
Authorized, sympathetic and respectful it may be, but “The Mockingbird Next Door” is no sycophantic puff piece. It is a zesty account of two women living on their own terms yet always guided by the strong moral compass instilled in them by their father, attorney A.C. Lee, who was the model for Atticus Finch in his youngest daughter’s first and only novel.
It is also an atmospheric tale of changing small-town America; of an unlikely, intergenerational friendship between the young author and her elderly subjects; of journalistic integrity; and of grace and fortitude — including Mills’s battle with lupus. While her autoimmune disease slows her to a “glacial pace,” it serves her well in writing about “the old in a nation geared to the young.”
How did Mills manage to secure the cooperation of the notoriously press-averse Harper Lee? By respecting boundaries from the start. As a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, Mills was assigned to write about Monroeville when “To Kill a Mockingbird” was chosen to launch Chicago’s One Book, One Chicago program on the 41st anniversary of its publication. Her respectful attitude won the trust of Alice and, eventually, the author, who is known to family and friends by her first name, Nelle. (Her middle name, Harper, was a tribute to the doctor who saved the life of Louise, the second of the three Lee sisters, as a baby.) “I didn’t feel I was entitled to more from her than she wanted to share,” Mills writes.
When illness forced Mills to take disability leave from the Tribune, she moved to Monroeville, renting the house next door to the Lees for nearly a year and a half in 2004-05. Mills gleaned much of the material for “The Mockingbird Next Door” over grits at local restaurants or coffee around kitchen tables. “Hi, hon. You pourin’?” Nelle would say over the phone, inviting herself to Mills’s house. Mills also listened to the sisters’ stories while she and Nelle fed “quarters into the washing machine at the Excel Laundromat” and during country drives down red dirt roads in Nelle’s Buick that often took them to feed and cluck over the ducks and geese at Whitey Lee Lake. (Nelle still spent several months a year in Manhattan, where she’d moved in 1949, but Mills does not focus on her New York life.)
Mills doesn’t avoid prickly issues, but she approaches them obliquely and accepts partial answers. Why didn’t Harper Lee ever write another novel, she asks both sisters and their good friend and Methodist pastor Tom Butts on multiple occasions. Because, she was told, it was hard to live up to the “impossible expectations” raised by her first, and Nelle hated the publicity and hoopla.
Mills also addresses Nelle’s annoyance at speculation about whether she is gay, and she screws up her nerve to ask each sister, neither of whom married or had children, whether the other ever dated. “A little,” they said. Mills concludes, “And that was that.”
A chance to correct the record while they could was clearly a factor in the Lees’ cooperation. At one point, Nelle half-jokingly suggests “Having Their Say” as a title for Mills’s book — echoing the Delaney sisters.
Two misconceptions they are eager to correct concern Nelle’s childhood friend and next-door neighbor Truman Capote, a model for Dill in her novel. Both sisters firmly deny Capote’s story that their mother, Frances Finch Lee, tried to drown young Nelle twice. They also repeatedly, heatedly insist that neither Capote nor Nelle’s editor had a hand in writing her novel.
Although Nelle happily helped Capote research his masterpiece, “In Cold Blood,” the two writers later grew apart over what Mills calls his “erratic behavior and the lying and mean streaks she said ran through him.” By the time Capote died in 1984 “after a long, drug-laden downfall,” they were long estranged. Nelle comments: “Truman was a psychopath, honey. He thought the rules that apply to everybody else didn’t apply to him.”
Despite her enervating illness, Mills’s writing is energetic. “Lee’s responses to the never-ending requests for interviews ranged from ‘no’ to ‘hell, no,’ ” she recalls. She describes Nelle, born in 1926 and 75 at the time of their first meeting, as “down-to-earth and self-assured,” “spirited, spontaneous,” “quick-witted and passionate.” Nelle is also impatient and has a temper. According to Tom Butts, she has “hell and pepper in her.” Alice, born in 1911, is the measured, steady one. Nelle dubs her “Atticus in a Skirt.”
“The Mockingbird Next Door” is warm yet wistful, a lament for the books Harper Lee never wrote. It ends on an elegiac note, since by the time Mills was able to complete it, the Lees were fading fast, in separate assisted-living facilities. The world she depicts is sadly gone, but — lucky for us — she caught it just in time.
THE MOCKINGBIRD NEXT DOOR
Life With Harper Lee
By Marja Mills
Penguin Press. 278 pp. $27.95