As long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by the life of Harper Lee, who wrote a book that inspired me and, through my numerous teachings of it, helped teach me how to teach. And then, of course, that was all from Ms. Lee -- no other books came forth after To Kill a Mockingbird, turning her into one of those fascinating celebrity figures who do great work and then disappear. Because I felt so drawn to her work and am so thankful for it, I've often wanted to visit her hometown of Monroeville, AL (the model for the fictional Maycomb) to see if I could catch a glimpse of her.
Therefore, it felt natural to read this memoir written by a friend of hers, journalist Marja Mills, who lived next door to Nelle (Harper Lee's first name) and her sister Alice (a force in her own right, a lawyer who practiced until she was nearly 100 years old) for 18 months in the early 2000s. However, also as a fan, I had to weigh Harper Lee's objections to the book and decide whether my own longings to connect more with the woman behind this masterpiece outweighed them. I decided, as I did with Charles Shields' very good biography Mockingbird, that I would read it. I hate to be harsh, but remaining silent for 50 years means that others get to paint the picture of you, and I felt both Mills and Shields had the best intents in mind with their works. Harper Lee's objections to Mills' book seem like they are guided by others at this point, as it's clear from the memoir (and Alice Lee's words about it) that the sisters knew a book was being written. And I'm glad it was: Harper Lee will not live forever, and, in 100 or 200 years, when one of the great novels of the 20th century is still being studied, I hope there is a body of biographical work for scholars and students to draw from. At least Mills and Shields have attempted to create this sort of legacy.
Now that I'm finished with Mills' book, I have mixed feelings about it all. Harper Lee seems like a regular old woman, getting her McDonald's coffee, feeding ducks at the park, hanging out with her other elderly friends. The portrayal of her made me want to call my Grandma. It's a respectful portrait, and I enjoyed much of it, although we don't learn that much about her. There are no grand revelations about why there was never a second book, no hints about why neither Nelle or her sister ever married or had romantic relationships. But, by the end of the book, I do feel like I know both of these women: the bristly, contradictory Nelle, her understated older sister Alice.
The memoir is short, but lags in places, as Mills struggles to integrate Alice's long histories of families in the region with details about Harper's writing career. The anecdotes about feeding the ducks and fishing capture the drowsiness of life in Monroeville, but that doesn't always create vivid reading. An anecdote describing watching the film Capote, which featured Catherine Keener in the Harper Lee role, should have been a tentpole, an exciting and surreal experience shared with us as readers, but I just wasn't captured into the moment like I so wanted to be. I was, however, drawn into the history of the Lee family, especially enjoying the Atticus-like letters of A.C. Finch (the sisters' father and basis for the character of Atticus Finch) and the backstory behind a fateful summer that saw the Lees lose both their mother and brother. The sisters hoped to set the record straight about their mother, after Truman Capote's accusation that she had tried to drown them as infants.
I also, overall, liked the writer Marja Mills, who makes it clear she's not trying to write a hard-hitting biography but rather document a way of life in Monroeville, where "information about Nelle is currency." She is not a particularly gifted writer -- and this was a challenging book to write, I'm sure -- but comes off as a genuine and nice person who was trying to do the right thing. I loved her little touches of humor, such as wondering if she should put a sign in her car window (Please Be Careful, National Treasure On Board) on a road trip from Alabama to New York or, later, thinking during an outing, "I had one of those moments -- an 'Oh, my God, I'm in an exercise class with Harper Lee' moment..." That being said, she's often polite to a fault, not wanting to offend her prickly subject.
Harsh words about Capote are some of the strongest in the book. I loved what Mills does here, juxtaposing events in Mockingbird with things happening in Monroeville: "In To Kill a Mockingbird, streaks run in families. According to Aunt Alexandra, "Everybody in Maycomb, it seemed, had a Streak: a Drinking Streak, a Gambling Streak, a Mean Streak, a Funny Streak." In Truman's family, according tot Nelle, it was lying: 'They fled from the truth as Dracula from the cross,' she said." Later in the text, Nelle unequivocally calls Capote a "psychopath", in the clinical sense, and Alice Lee was said to have burned the memoir written by Capote's aunt, Marie Rudisill (the "Fruitcake Lady" on Jay Leno).
More sordid details about Lee's personal life, like the rumors that she dropped a 1980s true crime book after battling the bottle, are touched on, briefly, but not delved into.
The memoir is also effective when it adopts an elegiac tone and connects anecdotes to Harper Lee's writing. After a night out at a Mexican restaurant and seeing Nelle's interest in a large table full of Indian families who run hotels, we get this reflection by Mills:
"It was impossible for me to watch Nelle's fascination with the subculture of Indian families running motels in modern-day Mockingbird country and not feel a pang, once again, for all the other writing she might have done. She admired their industriousness, especially at a time when she felt too many people born and raised in the area felt the world owed them a living. I couldn't help but envision a novel she could have written that included immigrants like those at the neighboring table, with Nelle's eye for detail and character, her empathy for outsiders, applied to the subculture of South Asians living in Southern Alabama."
The book ends with this same sort of elegaic tone, as Nelle, following a stroke in 2007 and a move into an assisted living facility, turns into "not the Nelle that I knew" and Alice, who, following her 100th birthday, has a bout with pneumonia that sent her into a separate assisted living facility. It's sad, but I did feel lucky to have spent so much time with them that I felt like I knew them -- as good as someone can know Harper Lee, who keeps everyone at arms' length.
So, my feelings are mixed. I think this will be interesting, at least, to any fans of the novel who have interest in the woman behind it. There is nothing very groundbreaking here, and not nearly as much information as in Shields' earlier biography, but we do feel a part of the Lee sisters' world towards the sunset of their lives. I'm left, like Mills, even more wistful for Lee's unfinished career, wishing she would have stayed more in New York City and wrote, rather than being an unwilling tourist attraction in her hometown.