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Likely Stories: Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee

Jim McKeown
Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee by Marja Mills

Memoir of a Chicago reporter and the reclusive Alice and Harper Lee.


I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

Marja Mills’ memoir, Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee, details her brief time spent with Nelle Harper Lee.  The book has much in common with mining for treasure.  The successful prospector must sift through tons of dross to acquire a few nuggets of gold.  Two years bouncing back and forth between Alabama and Chicago hardly qualifies as a “life.”  I expected much, much more insight into the author of the great, iconic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. 

Our book club read the Charles J. Shields’, Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee a few years agoWe all thoroughly enjoyed the brief, but affectionate, insights into her life.  Nelle, as her friends refer to her, is widely known as unwilling to give interviews, speak at public functions, or sign copies of her book.  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 and shared many of their daily routines. 

The first thing that annoyed me was the insertion of Mills into the story.  I dislike “new journalism” – ironically pioneered by Truman Capote a close friend of Nelle’s when they were children.  Nelle assisted Capote in researching his bestselling “non-fiction/novel,” In Cold Blood.  According to Mills, she detested “new journalism.”  The Lee sisters were always gracious and patient with Mills and gave her a peek into their lives.  Mills could have removed most of the dross cluttering up this memoir.

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 three times.  I also found her teasing 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 explaining how hard it was to find, she gave detailed directions to the spot.  Furthermore, Mills devoted a couple of chapters solely to her personal life.

My only hope is that Marja Mills has gathered enough information for a complete and authorized biography of Harper Lee to be published after her death.  For all these reasons, Nelle and Alice each get a star for their southern charm, politeness, and hospitality toward Mills, so that helps Mockingbird Next Door reach 3 stars.

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  You can read my book blog at RabbitReader.blogspot.com.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and HAPPY READING!