Books

Marja Mills
The Mockingbird Next Door

How do you review a book that should never have been published in the first place? Marja Mills, former journalist at the Chicago Tribune, first met Alice and Nelle “Harper” Lee at the turn of the millennium. She was writing a profile for her paper about a citywide book club with a single novel set for discussion, in this case To Kill a Mockingbird. Unlike most efforts to impinge upon their privacy, usually met with polite, rote dismissal, the author, along with the older sister with whom she lived, respected the effort and made themselves available to Mills for comment.

Many of those Chicagoan readers would have passing knowledge of Harper Lee’s lone attempt at fiction. It is a work that, since its publication in 1960, has given the Bible a run for its money as the most ethically influential text in America. But its sharp-edged small-town narrative also offers secular pleasures that may well exceed those proffered by the Good Book. The 1962 film it inspired remains unique in being just as good if not better than the classic on which it is based.

Mills was not a literary type – not on the evidence of this confected memoir of proximity to the Lee sisters, at least – rather, she was another worshipper at the shrine of celebrity that has surrounded To Kill a Mockingbird since its publication. And to be fair, some 30 million copies later, no novel in US history has had the same effect on the public imagination, at least not since 1862 when President Lincoln greeted Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, with the line: “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war!”

But Mills had no right to publish this mediocre end run around its frail and ageing, if still lively, subjects.

She claims that her involvement with the sisters (Alice was the more forthcoming of the siblings, as well as being senior by 15 years, a local celebrity in her own right who still practised law well into her nineties) was a gradual process of assimilation into a low-key Southern fraternity of fun, fair-minded, eccentric Lee friends and retainers.

The memoirist explains that it was a combination of health issues – lupus, and the ongoing fatigue that attended the affliction – and a growing attachment between herself and the sisters that decided Mills on an extended stay in Monroeville, Alabama, the Lee family’s home and inspiration for the “tired old town” of Maycomb where Harper’s novel was set.

She moved in next door to Nelle and Alice, claiming she planned a book on “Mockingbird country”. The sisters indulged her efforts and educated her in the local history of the area. One even gets a sense that they enjoyed speaking openly for once, whether about the privileges and the difficulties that arose from Harper’s success, or Harper’s friendship with Truman Capote, which reached its adult culmination in her research assistance for In Cold Blood, the “nonfiction novel” about a Kansas multiple murder that made Capote’s reputation. But the reader suspects they spoke freely because these were tangential to the broader story of the region.

Instead, Mills produced The Mockingbird Next Door, a work Harper repudiated in print soon after Penguin US announced publication: “Contrary to recent news reports, I have not willingly participated in any book written or to be written by Marja Mills. Neither have I authorised such a book. Any claims otherwise are false.”

Mills replied that Nelle and Alice E. Lee “were aware I was writing this book” – a formulation so loosely phrased as to raise the professional ire of Atticus Finch, the legendary lawyer of Harper’s creation and reputed maker of airtight legal documents. If we are to respect for a moment the integrity of Mills’s motives – her repeatedly stated belief that it was decency and tact that granted her entry into the Lee’s charmed circle in the first place – then the first thing she would have done on receiving Harper Lee’s public missive is to withdraw the book altogether.

So the memoirist is a shyster – but not, I think, a total liar. She genuinely believes in her good intentions, is careful to excise anything she professes might upset the sisters, and has an evident affection for her subjects. Indeed she brings to light much that has remained mysterious about Harper Lee: facets of character obscured by her long public reticence.

Harper’s caffeine addiction, her care for ducks and geese on a local pond, her love of the writings of Whig historian Thomas Babington Macaulay: these and a hundred other stray details make the recluse live for us as a creature of odd habit and decided personality. I loved Lee all the more for knowing that she was a Wallace & Gromit aficionado who, for many years, found rare peace on the golf course.

Yet to unrepentantly enjoy these local details and biographical asides, you must accept the legitimacy of the memoirist’s position as trusted and caring neighbour to women whose tart, ironic and wary orientation to the wider world had been shaped by decades of scuttlebutt relating to Harper’s authorial fame. On the basis of Harper Lee’s public statements, readers must presume that Mills took advantage of her privileged position.

And it really only is the honest-to-goodness proximity to Nelle and Alice that makes The Mockingbird Next Door worth reading. Its prose is plodding journalese, ginned up every once in a while with gee-wow gesticulation or prefab cliché. Though the only truly unforgivable thing about it is an absence of self-awareness on the memoirist’s part. Mills primly paints herself as one on the side of the sisters against a society in which certain public proprieties have been eroded. It never occurs to Mills that her memoir is just another symptom of the cultural coarseness Nelle and Alice decry.  AF

Penguin Press, 288pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 20, 2014 as "Marja Mills, The Mockingbird Next Door". Subscribe here.