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102 of 117 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What a delight, June 3, 2014
This review is from: The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee (Hardcover)
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Like many Americans, I read To Kill a Mockingbird in high school. It made an impression at the time but not a huge one (required reading has that effect). As I have grown older I have come to appreciate the greatness of the book.

When I saw Harper Lee featured as a character in the Truman Capote movies, my interest was rekindled. The Mockingbird Next Door definitely appealed as a means to find out more about the reclusive author. This book is such a pleasant surprise.

The citizens of Monroeville, Alabama fiercely protect Nelle Harper Lee's privacy. The access granted to Chicago Tribune reporter Marja Mills is something of a miracle. She showed up at the right time with a backstory that appealed to Nelle (TKAM was the One Book, One Chicago choice). Her approach was perfectly and respectfully orchestrated - first talking to Nelle's older sister Alice and some trusted acquaintances, finally meeting Nelle herself. Eventually she moved next door to Nelle and Alice and integrated into their lives. It's easy to believe that no other human being could show up in Monroeville as a stranger - a reporter, no less - and accomplish what Marja Mills did. In fact, at the same time Marja was living next door, another author was in town researching a biography of Harper Lee and had absolutely no access to her and little if any cooperation from the other citizens of Monroeville.

I wish the book had more photos. The cover photo is of Nelle with Mary Badham, the young actress who played Scout in the movie of TKAM. Nelle based the character of Scout on herself. A picture of Alice and Nelle would have been much appreciated. However, the dearth of photos is consistent with Nelle's desire for privacy.

This book is so well written, so conversational, so descriptive. Mills does not share everything she heard during her time spent with the Lee sisters - she respects the boundaries set by Alice and Nelle - but what we do learn is so very satisfying. We are swept into the rhythm of this small Southern town, and we understand the forces that led Nelle to create her one and only novel, her masterpiece. Further, we come to understand why there was only one book. Rather than being a victim of her own celebrity, Nelle set strict limits, reinforced by those around her, and she and Alice have managed to lead a remarkable life. There is nothing flashy about their life but it is really quite wonderful. The phrase that came to my mind is that it reads like a novel, but I'm not quite sure what I mean by that. I guess, that the story of Marja meeting Nelle and becoming part of her life is so wonderful, that sometimes the things that happen in real life are more pleasing than a plot conceived by a novelist. Or maybe I mean something else - will have to ruminate on it and maybe edit this review later.

The story is set against the backdrop of Marja Mills's struggle with lupus. She is quite matter-of-fact in dealing with it, which turns out to be pretty inspirational as well as sobering. In a way her illness frees her to write this book. It's actually a confluence of circumstances that result in this very special memoir - truly a gift to fans of Harper Lee and appreciators of good writing. It may turn out to be my favorite book of 2014. Highest recommendation.

Updated 7/21/14: In conjunction with publication comes the "news" that Nelle Harper Lee did not consent to or cooperate with this book. Journalists can take a fact and express it in such a way as to give a susceptible reader grounds for judgment. I realize we will never know what really happened. The timing of the announcement is suspicious. I know that controversy sells books. I also know that people change their minds over time. I do think it is incredibly sad that this wonderful story is now tainted with the suggestion that Nelle was/is not a wiling participant. I still recommend the book as a good, well-written story. I wish I could recommend it without reservations.
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Showing 1-10 of 12 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jun 6, 2014 4:28:27 PM PDT
HP Cohen says:
The picture on the cover of the book is not Alice and Nelle; it is a photo of Harper Lee and the young actress who portrayed Scout in the film version. Her name is Mary Badham

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 9, 2014 4:44:54 AM PDT
Rushmore says:
I should have recognized Mary Badham. I have corrected my review. Thanks for the correction.

Posted on Jul 15, 2014 6:24:15 PM PDT
While Mills may be a fine writer, she is also a fine liar. Will you update or retract your review based off the fact that Harper Lee writes:

"Miss Mills befriended my elderly sister, Alice. It did not take long to discover Marja's true mision; another book about Harper Lee. I was hurt, angry and saddened, but not surprised. I immediately cut off all contact with Miss Mills, leaving town whenever she headed this way. I understand that Ms. Mills has a statement signed by my elderly sister claiming I cooperated with this book. My sister would have been 100 years old at the time...Rest assured, as long as I am alive any book purporting to be with my cooperation is a falsehood."

http://shelf-life.ew.com/2014/07/14/harper-lee-speaks-marja-mills-penned-bio-was-unauthorized/

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 16, 2014 4:18:17 AM PDT
Rushmore says:
I recommend that interested readers check out the link provided above, as well as the book itself, and draw their own conclusions.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 20, 2014 2:04:51 PM PDT
Diane says:
I find your accusation of Ms. Mills being a "fine liar" libelous. At this point, it is a matter of one person's word against the word of another individual, and I think the rush to judgement we are seeing is unfortunate. Ms. Lee's claim of "leaving town" whenever Ms. Mills visited seems ludicrous to me, in light of Ms. Mill's account of shared meals, morning coffee and trips to the duck pond together. It would seem to me that the Lees would sue if the insinuation in Ms. Lees' statement had any validity. Rather, it seems to me that the statement is an indication of an elderly woman's remorse at having let down her guard and befriended a young woman who had made no secret of her intention to write the book, after a lifetime of seclusion. I look forward to hearing about comments of other people interviewed in the book; I suspect they will validate Ms. Mills' side of this story.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 23, 2014 7:20:47 PM PDT
You need to read the NPR article on this subject. Harper Lee is deaf and blind and signs whatever is put in front of her. Mills is not the bad guy.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 23, 2014 7:21:25 PM PDT
NPR has an excellent article on this subject. Mills is not the bad guy here.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 23, 2014 7:40:27 PM PDT
Diane says:
Thanks for your helpful input, Jerry LeCroy. This discussion can use more factual information!

Posted on Jul 26, 2014 8:19:35 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jul 26, 2014 8:21:11 PM PDT
Jill Clardy says:
It seems that many critics of the book are missing the point that it is NOT essential for an author to obtain permission to write a biography; and the lack of explicit permission doesn't necessarily taint or invalidate the work.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 28, 2014 4:02:24 AM PDT
Rushmore says:
While I agree with you that Mills is within her rights to write and publish this memoir, the controversy over Nelle Harper's current position does taint the work for me. I wish that the book could have stood on its own as a celebration of Mills's friendship with Nelle and Alice, rather than the centerpiece of a storm of namecalling and debate. I recommend the book on its merits but can't help being disturbed by the context.
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Rushmore
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Location: CHICAGO, IL United States

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