To 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.
Former Chicago Tribune reporter and first-time author Mills befriended the famously private Lee sisters of Monroeville, Ala., back in 2001, and moved into the house next door in 2004. Initially on assignment from her newspaper to gather information on Harper Lee (known as Nelle), neither Mills nor her cameraman, Terrence James, had any illusions about succeeding where countless other journalists had failed. But they were charged with at least trying to make contact with the famously reclusive author of To Kill a Mockingbird. Here, Mills recounts the surprisingly easy and natural way she did indeed meet, first, older sister Alice, a still-practicing attorney in her 80s, and then Nelle, whose sharp, eccentric personality, keen opinions, and generous reminiscences make this a must-read for fans. Subjects covered include the tribulations attending a first-time novelist's instant fame to Lee's childhood friendship with Truman Capote. An atmospheric image of the South, then and now, emerges as Mills recounts daily life with the sisters, as well as time with Nelle in her longtime second home, New York City. While upfront about what few areas (mostly "to spare the feelings" of living persons) must remain off the record, Nelle's sweet friendship with Mills elicits a forthcoming portrait of the author, her family, her time, and her South that is thoughtful, witty, and rich in feeling.
The Mockingbird Next Door
I loved reading about Miss Nelle Harper Lee as well as her kind and gentle sister, Miss Alice Lee. Alice told family stories about their family and like her sister is a very good story teller. I felt the chapters should have been more organized with a better flow of events, that's why I gave it four stars instead of five. I do understand, however, that Miss Mills explained that she was very ill with Lupus when she decided she had enough material to put the book together and was overwhelmed with the organization and writing. When Miss Mills started this journey she was completely forthcoming about her employment status and the reason she was knocking on the Lees' door in Monroeville, Alabama. After being welcomed first by Alice, and then Nelle, she became friends with them as well as friends with their friends. Nelle even suggested long time friends of hers she felt Miss Mills should speak to about the Lee family and their town of Monroeville. The author was clear that she was writing an article for the newspaper she worked for in Chicago. After the article was published, Miss Mills asked the Lee sisters if they would mind if she rented the home next door to them so she could continue the research for a book about the stories of the Lee family. The sisters were very agreeable and had no qualms about the author living next door. This book is in the midst of a controversy because Miss Harper Lee is claiming she did not give Marja Mills permission to write it. I believe, with the way Miss Mills seemed to decide to abruptly leave Alabama and return to Chicago, the Lee sisters may have been hurt and felt a little abandoned by their friend. Maybe for this reason Nelle is claiming she never gave permission, when to anyone reading this book, it is abundantly clear Nelle definitely did. She knew Miss Mills was writing a book and that the book was about her and her family. Maybe the sisters considered Miss Mills a friend but Miss Mills considered the sisters more acquaintances.
What an awe inspiring read
This is the second time I’ve read this book! Well worth the read. Each time I read this book I learn something new about Nelle Harper Lee and her family. You really should read this book over and over again. I think that this is my new favorite book.
great intro, where's the biography?
Wonderful intro to a book I would really like to read, but where is the biography? This is a book about the author's experiences writing the book, including her admirable battle with lupus, not a book about Harper Lee. It's a nice Sunday feature article, but not what I was expecting. Quite disappointed. (Laura Hillenbrand battles chronic fatigue but that isn't mentioned in Seabiscuit.)
A pleasant read, if repetitive. There are some nice anecdotes and you definitely get an appreciation for the wit and friendships of Harper Lee and her sister, and a flavor of life in the South. But Mills spends a lot of time telling us how many crates of notes and material she collected, all the wonderful stories Alice Lee told, how she researched the aspects of life and the different churches, but where are they? None of it made it into the book. I appreciate her respect for material that was deemed off the record by the sisters, but nothing about Harper Lee's childhood experiences, or college, or what it was like to be a tomboy at that time, and a bare mention of her issues with alcohol and nothing about where that came from. So many stones unturned and stories referred to but not told.
Maybe she can turn her notes over to Doris Kearns Godwin.