“The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee” by Marja Mills

leeIn 2001, Chicago Tribune journalist Marja Mills traveled to Monroeville, Alabama in search of something that no other journalist had been able to land: an interview with the reclusive Harper Lee. Instead, she got an interview with her older sister, Alice–content with that, Mills prepared to return to Chicago to write her story. But then she got word that Lee (known as “Nelle” to those close to her) wanted to sit down for a “visit.” Many visits later they were friends, and in 2004 Mills was even invited to move in next door to the Lee sisters’ home. Underneath the plain, clear language of The Mockingbird Next Door is an enchanting, atmospheric portrait of two sisters and the southern town they inhabit (when Harper Lee is not living in New York). Mills makes a point of avoiding gossip, but that hardly matters. The book is compelling and charming; and it brings Harper Lee and her world, both past and present, to full life.


Harper Lee, author of the “national touchstone,” To Kill a Mockingbird, withdrew from the relentless vortex of fame and never published another book. Her silence, like that of J. D. Salinger, has been a compelling literary mystery. When To Kill a Mockingbird was chosen for One Book, One Chicago in 2001, Chicago Tribune reporter Mills traveled to Lee’s Alabama hometown, certain that she would never get anywhere near the author. Instead, Mills found herself living a literary fairy tale, as Alice, Harper’s older sister by 15 years, still working as an attorney in her nineties, ushered Mills into their book-filled home. Soon Mills, much to her astonishment, is watching football games, going fishing, and sharing meals with Alice, Nelle (Harper is her middle name), and their friends. When the Lees express their hope that Mills will record their reminiscences and “set the record straight,” she rents the house next door and devotes herself to listening to tales of the Lee family; Nelle’s relationship with their childhood neighbor, Truman Capote (“Truman was a psychopath, honey”); and the nearly overwhelming repercussions of Nelle’s novel. Mills’ struggles with lupus bring her even closer to the sisters. As she portrays the exceptional Lee women and their modest, slow-paced world with awed precision, Mills creates a uniquely intimate, ruminative, and gently illuminating biographical memoir