Monday, November 24, 2014

Book Review: The Mockingbird Next Door by Marja Mills

From Goodreads:
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 to 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 to Chicago Tribune journalist Marja Mills. It was the beginning of a long conversation—and a great friendship.
 
In 2004, with the Lees’ blessing, Mills moved into the house next door to the sisters. She spent the next eighteen months there, sharing coffee at McDonalds and trips to the Laundromat with Nelle, feeding the ducks and going out for catfish supper with the sisters, and exploring all over lower Alabama with the Lees’ inner circle of friends.
 
Nelle shared her love of history, literature, and the 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.
I'd be remiss to review this without sharing with my reader friends that there is some controversy around this book.  Upon its acquisition by Penguin in 2011 and again at its release in 2014, Harper Lee's lawyers issued a statement on her behalf saying that she had not agreed to participate in the writing of this book and that Mills, the author, took advantage of Lee's elderly sister, Alice, in order to get the information she uses to write the book.  USA Today has a pretty balanced article on the whole issue that you can read here.

My own brief thoughts: I really, really want to believe that Lee was not taken advantage of.  The fact that I wanted this book to exist so badly may have influenced my decision that I don't have an issue with the author's publishing it.  But here are a few legitimate reasons believe support that:

  • If the book isn't just complete fiction, and there's no reason to believe that it is - no one has claimed any of it is untrue, then it's evident that Lee was not avoiding Mills as she later claimed.  
  • Close friends of both Lee sisters who don't have anything to gain financially from the sale of the book verify that Lee had given her permission for Mills to write the memoir and that Mills respected all stories Lee wished to be off the record.
  • Lee has had numerous problems in the past few years with lawyers and managers and family members making statements on her behalf.  Evidence I've seen points to Lee being in a position where she's relying on others to speak for her - others who DO have a financial stake in keeping information about Lee within the estate.
To be fair, I do have to say that I think it's sad that Mills' relationship with Lee has deteriorated this badly and that the book about a sweet friendship is tainted by the controversy.  I wonder a bit if Mills and Penguin might have waited to publish the book after Lee's death, in order to be sure to respect Lee's wishes.  But it's a hard issue.  Because historically and literarily, Lee is hugely important.  If the world hadn't largely ignored the wishes of many authors who make up the literary canon, we'd be without some of the most important works and historical context for that canon.  Basically, what I'm saying is that while I, with my limited amount of knowledge, can imagine that the publisher or author may have handled things differently, I'm glad this book exists.  On to the review!

Writing
I've read many critiques of the writing in this book, and while I understand where the reviewers are coming from, I think it's important to understand that this book is not purporting to be a biography of Lee.  And if you're looking for in depth analysis of her life and works, you will certainly be disappointed.  It's not high literature and it's nothing near a portrait of Lee's life.  It does focus a lot on Mills herself and many of the stories she shares are mundane.  For me, this wasn't a problem.  I knew from the beginning it wasn't a tell-all and I was fascinated to know what Alice and Harper Lee's day to day lives were like.  I loved the stories about feeding ducks and stopping for coffee at McDonalds.  Don't expect a thrilling or super-revealing story.  Expect exactly what the book claims to be - stories about Alice, Harper, and their friendship with Mills, and I think you'll be satisfied.

Entertainment Value
Again, I just loved this book.  I thought it was charming and sweet and I particularly appreciated how careful Mills is to avoid sharing anything Harper Lee requested be off the record, even if that means we don't get any exciting or scandalous inside scoop.  I think Mills does a great job of respectfully portraying how Alice and Harper have spent the later years of the lives.  She also does an amazing job of showing us Monroeville, AL, their home and the basis for TKAM's Maycomb County, and the ways it has changed since Lee was a child.  My love of all things Southern and small town really drew me to this aspect of the book.  

Overall
I thought it was absolutely charming.  I hate that it has caused hard feelings, but I think it's a valuable book that's worth reading if you're a fan of Harper Lee.  It's also just a great story about small towns, older people, and the changes they've seen as the world has progressed.  The author portrays Lee in a very positive light and refrains from sharing anything unsavory or critical regarding her or her family. 

Thanks to Penguin for providing me with a copy to review.


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