THE MOCKINGBIRD NEXT DOOR: Life with Harper Lee, by Marja Mills. Penguin Press, 278 pp., $27.95.
What ever happened to Harper Lee? The Alabama native was 34 when her first novel, "To Kill a Mockingbird," was published in 1960. This tale of childhood innocence and racial injustice in the Depression-era South won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961, was adapted for an award-winning film with Gregory Peck and became a staple of high school English curricula. But Lee shunned publicity and never published another novel, fueling occasional rumors that her friend Truman Capote -- a childhood neighbor in the small town of Monroeville -- had written or helped write "Mockingbird." Lee went silent, but "To Kill a Mockingbird" endures, an American classic.
Such was the state of affairs in 2001, when Marja Mills, then a reporter at the Chicago Tribune, traveled to Monroeville on assignment. The Chicago Public Library had selected "To Kill a Mockingbird" for its One Book, One Chicago reading program, and her editor wanted a story on Harper Lee's hometown and, if possible, Lee herself. That's how she finds herself ringing the doorbell at Lee's unlisted address, as she recounts in her new memoir, "The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee." "I expected that I would be turned away as so many reporters had been before," she writes. "If anyone answered the door, I would be polite, and then I would be gone."
Instead, Mills is ushered into the book-lined, un-air-conditioned house by a diminutive, gray-haired woman with a walker. This turns out to be Alice Lee, Harper's older sister, then 89 years old and still practicing law. (Their father, attorney A.C. Lee, was the basis for "Mockingbird's" hero, Atticus Finch.) Mills is surprised to find Alice chatty and forthcoming, but she's beyond stunned when the phone rings the next day at the Best Western.
"Miss Mills? ... This is Harper Lee. You've made quite an impression on Miss Alice. I wonder if we might meet."
Marja Mills will get her story. She'll also make a friend.
In the years that follow her article, Mills returns to Monroeville many times, socializing with Alice and Nelle (as Harper Lee is known to friends) and eventually renting the house next door after a flare-up of lupus requires her to go on disability leave. Their friendship is the real subject of her modest but amiable book, a celebration of the small-town values and old-fashioned pleasures that the sisters come to embody for the author -- mornings talking over coffee at the kitchen table, drives to feed the ducks, evenings reading in companionable silence.
"As I began to spend more time with the Lee sisters," Mills writes, "I was often mesmerized by the stories they told and by the way they told them, in beautiful, fluid language, rich with the flavors of the South. They spoke with a playfulness, too, a sprightly humor that turned even mundane events into wry tales."
All this makes for pleasant if sometimes dull reading -- a bit like a visit with your great-aunts that goes on a little too long. There isn't a great deal of drama, but there are some good chuckles -- including an exercise class Mills takes with Nelle ("an 'Oh, my God, I'm in an exercise class with Harper Lee' moment") and an embarrassed viewing of Super Bowl XXXVIII, with its Viagra ads and Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction ("Nelle appeared to experience these ... developments with a mixture of surprise, consternation, and barely suppressed amusement").
Readers combing "The Mockingbird Next Door" for the juicy bits will come away frustrated -- though we do learn that Nelle fell out with Truman Capote over his malicious gossiping. "Truman was a psychopath, honey," she tells the author. On the other hand, Gregory Peck -- who played Atticus Finch in the film and became a lifelong friend, is pronounced "delicious." As for Harper Lee's meteoric literary career, Mills cannot really solve the mystery. "I don't think any first-time author could be prepared for what happened," Alice tells her. "It all fell on her ... and her way of handling it was not to let it get too close to her." Once, Nelle says of "Mockingbird": "I wish I'd never written the thing" -- a feeling that passes, she acknowledges.
Most poignantly, Mills reflects on the "imaginary row of books" that Lee might have written but never did. We can be grateful that "The Mockingbird Next Door" brings Harper Lee's distinctive voice to us, briefly, once more.