The Mockingbird Next Door takes the reader into the world of Nelle Lee, better known in literary circles as Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Marja Mills, by anyone’s account, shouldn’t have become an insider in tiny Monroeville, Alabama, home to Lee—but she did, and her story is nothing short of wonderful. Especially for those who hold the classic novel dear.
The Mockingbird Next Door is Mills’ account of meeting and becoming the friend of the reclusive Harper Lee, and her older sister, Alice. It’s a biography, but one with a narrative twist that is also the story of its own author, Mills, a Chicago Tribune journalist struggling with the problems of prolonged illness, interlaced nicely with the stories of its true subjects, the Lee sisters.
How Marja Mills came to know the Mockingbird Next Door
Marja Mills loved travel, so when she was offered an unknown assignment that meant a journey, she jumped at the opportunity. She and her photographer soon found themselves navigating the red clay roads that would lead them to a national treasure, Harper Lee.
The aging Lee and her sister, Alice, who had acted as her gatekeeper since her rise to fame shortly after To Kill a Mockingbird was published, told their stories bit by bit to the younger woman who sought them out and eventually became their next door neighbor. Many of those stories would make their way into The Mockingbird Next Door. Some, at the request of the Lees, would not. Mills gives us a respectful recount of what the Lee sisters allowed, and it turns out they gave her quite a wide berth in writing their stories.
We learn more about the famous neighbor and childhood friend to whom Harper Lee will ever be linked, Truman Capote. We learn more about the women’s family, on their terms, rather than the not-always-well-meaning terms of others who have written about the clan. Best of all, we get to engage with them socially and intellectually, if vicariously, through Mills. It’s a thrilling ride for those who love great literature.
Why The Mockingbird Next Door should be your next read
That being said, The Mockingbird Next Door moves at a slow and easy pace, and offers up a reminiscence of what living in the Old South was like for those of us who were children there—and yes, it invites in those who never did and affords them the opportunity to get acquainted with that life, even though the Lees themselves seemed to be watching it fade all around them.
Along the way, Mills takes us from her room at the Best Western in Monroeville, where she stayed up all night with the book she loved, into the home of the Lees, on outings where she got to know them better, and even to Sunday Service with their friends, a perfect adventure for any Mockingbird fan.
If you have a little time, sit back with The Mockingbird Next Door and get to know America’s favorite author a little better. If you don’t have time, I promise it’s more the reason to settle in with this book and join Mills and the Lees in Monroeville. Once you have, let us know your thoughts about the Mockingbird Next Door.
Addendum: Harper Lee has issued two statements in which she denies cooperation with The Mockingbird Next Door. Author Marja Mills, and her publisher, Penguin Press, maintain that she had the blessing of the Lee sisters to publish the work, citing a 2011 letter from Harper Lee’s older sister, Alice.