"One journalist's memoir of her personal friendship with Harper Lee and her sister, drawing on the extraordinary access they gave her to share the story of their lives. 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 by 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 for Chicago Tribune reporter Marja Mills. It was the beginning of a long conversation-and a friendship that has continued ever since. In 2004, with the Lees' encouragement, Mills moved into the house next door to the sisters. She spent the next eighteen months there, talking and sharing stories over meals and daily drives in the countryside. Along with members of the Lees' tight inner circle, the sisters and Mills would go fishing, feed the ducks, go to the Laundromat, watch the Crimson Tide, drink coffee at McDonald's, and explore all over lower Alabama. Nelle shared her love of history, literature, and the quirky 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"--
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Our book club read the Charles J. Shields’ unauthorized biography of Nelle Lee, Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee a few years ago. We all thoroughly enjoyed the tantalizingly brief insights into her life. Lee is widely known as unwilling to give interviews, speak at public functions, or sign copies of her book. A first edition of TKAM runs to nearly $40,000. 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. The three women shared many of their daily routines. Sounds great, right? No.
The first thing that annoyed me was the insertion of Mills into the story. I detest “new journalism” – ironically pioneered by Truman Capote a close friend of Harper’s when they were children. Harper assisted Capote in researching his best selling work, In Cold Blood. Lee detested “new journalism” – according to Mills in the early pages of the memoir. The Lee sisters were always gracious and patient with Mills and gave her a unique insight into the lives of the two sisters. The least Mills could have done was remove the tons of 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 five times. I also found her teasing very 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 mentioning how hard it was to find, she gave detailed directions to the spot. Topping this list of complaints were a couple of chapters devoted solely to Mills personal situation, with only a mention she had to cancel a trip for coffee to a local fast-food restaurant.
Mills could have easily written a biography of Alice Lee, who played an important roll in the life of Nelle and in the friendship Mills was able to develop. At more than 90 years of age, she continued to work as a lawyer in Monroeville.
My only hope is that Marja Mills has gathered enough information for a complete and authorized biography of Harper Lee, which was given to her on the proviso that the book not be published until after her death. For all these reasons, Nelle and Alice each get a star for their charm, politeness, and hospitality toward Mills, so that makes Mockingbird Next Door reach 3 stars.
The author had the very rare, precious experience of gaining the Lee women's trust. Since 1964, Harper Lee refused interviews. When this
Learning about southern mores and Monroeville, Alabama where Harper Lee and her elderly sister Alice reside, provided insight into the motivation for To Kill a Mockingbird.
I could write paragraphs about my love of To Kill a Mockingbird, but in the end, it all comes down to one thing. In my mind and heart, there is no other book like this one. An avid reader since childhood, I've read thousands of books. Since reading To Kill a Mockingbird in 1969, there are none to compare.
Marja Mills writes slowly, lovely, and gives a wonderful telling of these two spunky, highly intelligent ladies. This is not a trashy tell all book, rather it is a sweet, wonderful tale of two women who live quietly, humbly in a small town populated by 7,000 people.
It was wonderful to learn, but not surprising, that their tiny, humble house is overtaken by books, books and more books. To be invited inside the home of Harper Lee via the author is a rare and wonderful treat.
Fortunately, the author was able to pull together an incredible book based on thousands of conversations and years of knowing the Lee sisters.
A few years ago, Harper sustained a massive stroke, and now resides in a managed care facility. Hard of hearing, suffering from severe memory loss, the author was able to capture a time before Harper Lee struggled with so many health issues.
This books is highly recommended for those like me who love To Kill a Mockingbird!
Five Wonderful Stars
With her lupus putting her on medical disability, she decides to move to Monroeville and get to know the Lee sister's better. She hangs out with Alice and Nelle (as Harper is known to her friends). Mills is so worried about offending Nelle that she mostly listens and never asks any substantial questions. We don't find out if Nelle is gay or not, but we do find out what scuppernog is. We don't find out how far Nelle got with her second novel, but we do know that she counted sixteen ducks at the duck pond (a fox might have gotten the seventeenth one). You can feel the author walking on eggshells as we go from one roadside diner to the next as Nelle or Alice recount one banal "anecdote" after another. I got 160 pages in and to drop this book. It is so dull.
At the time of publication, Nelle issued a statement that she had no idea that Mills intended to write a book and had not involvement in the writing. Yeah right. Marja Mills may have written a dull book, but she doesn't come off as a liar, and she'd have to be one helluva liar to make up all this stuff about the Lee sisters. I think unfortunately that Harper Lee is either very cranky or is being manipulated by her new lawyer. I hope Harper Lee's new novel is great, but I think it's just further evidence of manipulation by a lawyer interested in royalties.
Mills, however, didn't really appeal to me. The not-so-subtle
I also felt that her repetitiveness sometimes detracted from the statement. For example, re-iterating over and over that the Lee sisters saw their mother as a wonderful women and not troubled (as others had said) only seemed to me that Mills really didn't believe their assessment.
It's not a terrible book. Just not an awfully good one.
There are now some cracks in the never ending mystery of the life of Harper Lee. Journalist Marja Mills takes an assignment to try and meet Nelle (her name to those who know her) Harper. Mills meets Nelle's remarkable sister Ann, 15 years Nelle's senior, first, and receives a warm welcome in Monroeville (Maycomb), Alabama. Eventually both sisters approve of Mills moving next door and writing a book about them.
The book is a warm and gentle saga of small town life. No blinding revelations, more a loving recounting of how the days pass mostly pleasantly for the two devoted sisters and the friends who love and protect them.
For me, one of the truest pleasures is the book cover: Nelle and Scout, together on a porch swing.
I enjoyed this very much. It was great reading about Nell and her sister Alice, learning about their reading likes and dislikes. Added a few books to my towering TBR. Learning about their family, their past, their daily lives. The author went back and forth for many years, was introduced to the people and places they loved. She eventually rented the house next door for eighteen months, was back and forth between their two houses. She discusses Nell's relationship with Truman and her great love for Gregory Peck and his family. This was a very easy to read and well written chronicle of the author, her trials and challenges and her burgeoning relationship with both sisters. It was all things Southern and all things literary. I thought the author did a wonderful job and had an experience she will never forget. The Harpers, Nell and Alice, were both amazing women.
Former Chicago Tribune reporter and first-time author Mills befriended the
Lee, known by her first name, Nelle—and her 89-year-old sister, Alice, a lawyer, were interested in Chicago's One Book, One Chicago program, which had chosen Mockingbird for that year's citywide reading. When Mills rang the doorbell at the Lees' home, Alice invited her in for a long conversation. This led to repeated visits and resulted in a friendship that continues, even with both sisters now in assisted living facilities.
In this unique memoir, Mills writes about two unique women who retained their dignity even in the midst of celebrity madness. This famous author was overwhelmed with attention, and after reading the book, readers can sympathize and understand her need for her privacy.
A recluse, Lee wants to protect her privacy and chose not to write another book, since she was at the top of her game. Mills recounts a simple daily life with the sisters, as well as time with Nelle in her longtime second home, New York City.
She takes readers to a small southern town with a slow everyday life style, from having coffee at McDonalds, feeding the ducks, and eating gravy and biscuits at a diner. An intimate account of how fame changed their lives, and some juicy tidbits—all fans of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, will love.
I listened to the audiobook and the narrator, Amy Lynn Stewart delivered a pleasant performance for this laid back account of the simple ways of the south with these two sisters, as they approach the last part of their lives.
Mentioned in the book, Alice seemed to be the steady, responsible older sister, and Nelle Harper was the spirited, spontaneous younger one. The sisters lived modestly, with an eclectic circle of friends that included "a retired hairdresser, a pharmacy clerk, a one-time librarian, and a former bookkeeper who also was the wife of a retired bank president. Often, friends joined in the outings, breakfasts and dinners that Mills and Lee shared. A simple life.
Readers will learn as about Mills' personal struggles with lupus, and her interactions with these eccentric, yet witty women. I had just finished re-reading the 25th anniversary edition of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, and this book was a nice edition to read afterwards!
Thank you for sharing this beautiful account of these extraordinary women!
And that's about it.
If you are hoping for a tell-all biography that will reveal the hidden aspects (or dirty laundry) of Nelle Harper Lee's life, this isn't that book. At the beginning of Mill's project, the sisters told the reporter that they would trust her judgment regarding what she would include and what she would leave out. Mills writes that "[w]ith the Lees as my teachers, I learned more about literature, family, history, faith, friendship, and fun than I did in any classroom" (p. 2). That may be, but Mills keeps much of what she learned rather vague. For example, the Lee sisters, especially Alice, were involved in their Methodist congregation, and Alice was active at the denominational level, but what their faith meant to them on as believers is not discussed. Perhaps the Lee sisters did not think that that was a proper topic of conversation.
Remarkably, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird and her sister, a lawyer who is described repeatedly as "Atticus Finch in skirts", have nothing to say about the current state of race relations in the South other than that they hope that their African-American housekeeper "knows how much [they] love her." (p. 136).
This book is a heartfelt tribute to the two Lee sisters and to the "old days" of Monroeville. I can't bring myself to be too critical of this book. Nonetheless, the narrative moves at a snail's pace, and I would only recommend it for readers who really loved To Kill a Mockingbird.
Reading about the author’s own trips to the same place brought back great memories. Her first person account of getting to know the Lee sisters takes place in the tiny town of Monroeville. We had stayed in the same hotel and ate at the same restaurants. Mills visits Lee’s hometown for a simple article, assuming she’ll never have the opportunity to speak with the infamous author herself. Yet over the course of the next few years she actually becomes friends with the author and rents a house next door for a while. They watched movies from Netflix together and shared the occasional cup of coffee in the morning.
It was like sinking into a porch rocker on a humid afternoon. Mills tells you about the slow, unexpected friendship in a leisurely way that suits the setting. Lee comes across as witty and feisty. If the whole things had been fiction I wouldn’t have been surprised because it reads like such a dream for any fan of TKAM.
Mill’s portrait is exactly how I always pictured Lee would actually be. I’ve heard about the recent complaints about the authenticity of the book. I hope it’s all unfounded. I suppose there’s no way to know for sure, but in my opinion I felt like the author was constantly respectful of the Lees and their privacy. There’s no feel of privacy being evaded or secrets being aired to the public. It’s just a glimpse into their quiet world.
A few years ago I read Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee by Charles J. Shields. It came across as dry and a bit boring. I think the thing that was obviously missing is that irreplaceable spark that Harper Lee herself provides.
I loved the honest way it addressed Lee’s complicated relationship with fame. The sincerity about being proud of her work, but hating the attention and press that came with it. She was honored when she won the Pulitzer, but she still didn’t want to go through the stress of publishing another book.
BOTTOM LINE: A wonderful read for any fan of To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s also a great way to get excited before the release of Go Set a Watchman on July 14th!
In June, 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird was the first book of 34 year old author Harper Lee. "Through the experiences of Scout, Jem, and their best
After the success of To Kill a Mockingbird, (Nelle) Harper Lee never published another book. She jealously guarded her privacy and actively avoided all publicity or interviews for many, many years.
In 2001 Mills was sent by the Chicago Tribune to Monroeville, Alabama to try to get some information about Nelle Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird. The classic novel was chosen to be Chicago's first book in the new One Book, One Chicago program. Mills just expected to get some background information, write about the town, and set the tone for the city wide read. After gathering all the background information, she felt she should make at least one attempt to talk to Nelle or her (at that time) 89 year older sister Alice.
The sisters both knew from people around town that Mills was there gathering information and Mills herself had sent them information concerning the One Book, One Chicago program. Much to her surprise, Alice invited her in to talk and this started an unprecedented friendship. The sisters decided to trust Mills because they were intrigued by the One Book, One Chicago program and because, from Mills various inquiries around town, they were sure she wasn't a gossip. This insight proves to be true as Mills carefully shares only what Nelle deems safe. The tone of the book is all Southern charm and information about Nelle Harper Lee is carefully disclosed without a hint of gossip or scandal.
Mills was given permission to write this book from Nelle and Alice, and that seems obvious after reading it, although there was plenty of buzz around before its publication that it was going to be another unauthorized biography. Mills slowly and gently tells the story of their developing friendship and shares many of their recollections and stories, along with those of their friends. She covers daily life with the sisters (both are now in assisted living) in Monroeville, as well as with Nelle in New York City. Some things remain off the record. She does cover Nelle's longtime friendship with Truman Capote and why she never wrote another book.
Mills struggles with lupus are as evident as Nelle's feisty personality in this charming but careful account of Nelle Harper Lee. It is not, by any measure, a full biography of Nelle Harper Lee. Mills did not get an extensive on-the-record interview. It is, however, a portrait of her life during the time Mills interviewed her and lived next door to her along with whatever stories or information Nelle chose to share.
Disclosure: I received an advanced reading copy of this book for my Kindle from the Penguin Group for review purposes.
1. Nelle (like her other friends, Mills refers to the late author by her real first name) liked the fact that at that time (2001) Chicago was encouraging its citizens to read and talk about her novel. These kinds of programs, now common in many communities, was a relatively new idea back then, and however much Nelle wanted to avoid public exposure, she enjoyed having her novel front and center.
2. Nelle was in her 70s then and she realized that her opportunities to get the facts straight for all those who would inevitably be writing about her life were running out. Charles Shields was already working on his unauthorized biography, and when it was published, she didn't like it.
3. Marja Mills first approached not her but her older sister Alice. Then in her early 90s, Alice was still practicing law in Monroeville. Nelle called her "Atticus in a skirt." Alice invited the reporter into her home, Nelle being away at the time, and answered a few questions. After Mills passed the Alice test, Nelle herself called the reporter at her motel and suggested getting together.
4. Mills herself was somewhat vulnerable. She was more introverted than the typical reporter, plus she suffered from lupus, a condition that can leave a person too tired to do anything for days at a time. It was lupus, in fact, that caused Mills to take a leave from the Tribune and move next door to the Lees.
5. The reporter didn't push for information as much as wait patiently for the author to reveal it. Gradually Nelle gave Mills access to her closest friends in Monroeville, and gradually Mills herself became a close friend. Every day she and Nelle would have coffee together. Every week they would go to the laundromat together.
The lively mind, tormented soul and generous heart that Nelle Harper Lee revealed to Marja Mills already makes her book a great source for all those who want to write about the writer. And perhaps now they will get their facts straight. For example, Truman Capote, her one-time friend and neighbor, did not help her write “To Kill a Mockingbird,” though she did help him write “In Cold Blood.”
Chicago Tribune journalist Marja Mills was sent to Monroeville Alabama on an assignment – the Chicago Public Library had picked To Kill a Mockingbird for it’s “One Book, One Chicago” project and her editor wanted some background. She had no real
Over time Mills became friends with the sisters. A health crisis required her to take a bit of a sabbatical, and a warmer climate and gentler lifestyle were recommended, so she decided to rent a house in Monroeville. And that house was right next door to the Lees. In this book, Mills tries to chronicle her experiences over several years of shared meals, drives in the country, trips to the cemetery, and Scotch on the front porch, and what she learned from the sisters about the South, religion, faith, family and justice.
I found it engaging and interesting, though at time repetitive. I’m aware of the controversy that surrounded its publication, but that did nothing to diminish my enjoyment of this book.
Amy Lynn Stewart does a fine job of narrating the audiobook. There were times when I felt that Nelle or Alice was speaking directly to me, relating a story about their parents or a cousin’s automobile mishap.
The deliberate, reasonable tone of voice of this audiobook supported the cautious, protective writing about Mills' friendship with this famous author.
After having read the very good Go Set a Watchman and rereading the excellent To Kill a Mockingbird, I figured it would be good to get a little insight into the author of both, and how she came to write the novel that has been famous for almost six decades.
But possibly the most frustrating thing, at least to me, was the whole black hole effect.
Black holes can't be seen. The only reason we know they are there is due to all of the activity that goes on around them. This is essentially how Mills approached this book. She talks constantly about the hours and hours and hours of wonderful stories she captured on tape from the sisters...but doesn't tell us any of them. She alludes to a wonderful story that Harper tells her during one of their many outings...but doesn't actually relay it.
She also mentions quite early that Harper's decision to not write a second novel was not a single decision, but a series of small ones that accumulated over time...but doesn't show us any of those.
She addresses the Truman Capote issue reasonably straight on, but that's about it.
Oh, and she has no problem letting us know how the Lee sisters constantly state how highly they regard her, as well as her journalistic integrity.
So, really, this is an almost 300-page advertisement for a writer that is not very good. But hey, she got to hang with Harper Lee for over a year.
Too bad she couldn't have found something engaging to write about in all that time.