Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Mockingbird Next Door

Harper Lee is one of Alabama's famous authors. She wrote the book, To Kill a Mockingbird, back in the early 60's and since then people have been striving to know the REAL Harper Lee. I think that Marja Mills has allowed the general reading public to come to know the reclusive Monroeville citizen in her book, The Mockingbird Next Door.  Harper Lee released a statement that she did not endorse this book but her sister and lawyer, Alice Finch Lee, says that both sisters knew that Miss Mills was writing a book about their lives in Monroeville. I am going to believe Alice this time. Of the two sisters, Alice is my favorite!

The book opens in the early 2000s when Marja Mills is doing an article about To Kill a Mockingbird for The Chicago Tribune.  While visiting Monroeville, Marja timidly knocks on the door of the Lee home. Knowing that Harper Lee is a recluse, she does not expect anyone to answer the door and is ready to walk away, when a petite little lady using a walker, answers the door. It is Alice Finch Lee, older sister of Harper Lee.  And as Marja becomes friends with Alice, she soon begins to cultivate a friendship with Harper Lee or as Alice calls her, Nelle Harper. Marja, struggling with lupus, takes some time off and moves to Monroeville where she rents a house next door to the Lee sisters. She becomes their friend. Many mornings, Marja's phone would ring and it was Nelle Harper, "Are you pouring?" she would inquire. Coffee talks with Nelle were always interesting.

I think that Mockingbird Next Door is the best book I have read thus far in 2014.  I found out that the Lee sisters are like many old southern ladies of their era. They enjoy rides in the country, visiting friends, going to church and they love relating stories of days gone by.  As I read their story, I was reminded of old southern ladies I have known and loved.  But I have to say that Alice Finch Lee is a bit different from most girls brought up in her day(she was born in 1911). Alice went to law school and came home to Monroeville where she worked in her father's law office until she retired at age 100.

Alice is 15 years older than Nelle but they are devoted sisters and often travelled to see their other sister, Louise, in Eufaula, Alabama. Their only brother died of a brain aneurysm while serving in the army during WW2. An interesting family tidbit regarding Nelle's is her grandmother's name (Ellen) spelled backwards.

Nelle Harper Lee was the youngest of the Lee children and as many know, Truman Capote, was Nelle's childhood friend. She helped him research his book, In Cold Blood. Many have speculated that Truman Capote helped Nelle write To Kill a Mockingbird but after reading this book, I am convinced it is Nelle's own book. Nelle and Alice parted ways with Capote when he spread a malicious rumor about their mother.  Nelle tells Marja Mills that Truman Capote was a psychopath...(tell us what you really think about him Miss Lee:)) Many fans want to know if Harper Lee is gay. Alice says that she and Nelle both dated "some".  Apparently no man could live up to the reputation of their father, Amasa Lee.  Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird was based on Harper's much loved father.  Again, Alice and Nelle are of the era when your business was yours alone and it was impolite to speak of your personal life or to inquire about the private lives of others. I am sure Alice and Nelle would be appalled at some of the  personal posts on Facebook.

Readers also want to know why Harper Lee never wrote another book. She says that she said all she had to say in To Kill a Mockingbird.  Being an intensely private person, all the interviews and book signings really bothered Nelle. She was a modest writer and a humble person.  When she met fans, she always worried that she had not lived up to their expectations of a 'famous writer".

From reading this book I found out that Harper Lee and I share a fondness for Harry Potter. Both Alice and Nelle were voracious readers and their modest home was filled with books.  Bookcases were filled with books on English history as well as copies of To Kill a Mockingbird in many languages.  Another book that Harper Lee enjoyed was, Being Dead is No Excuse by Grayden and Hays. It is a book that relates the "rules" of mourning and funeral rituals in the South. I have enjoyed this book so much that I have a copy on the bedside table in my guest room so that my visitors can read a chapter or so and chuckle before turning in for the night.

I was sad to turn the last page in this book and I know it is one that I will read again just to visit with the fabulous Lee sisters of Monroeville, Alabama.


~Lavender Dreamer~ said...

This sounds like a book I would really enjoy. You did a beautiful review my friend! I love the photos you shared....really makes it interesting to learn more about these delightful ladies. Enjoy your day! Hugs!

Terri D said...

I have made note of both books and authors. Will set out to procure them as soon as I finish here! Excellent review!

Arlene Grimm said...

Thanks Terri and Diane. The Being Dead is No Excuse is really cute...southerners will understand the I hope you do read Mockingbird Next Door and let me know if you enjoyed it.