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The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee [Kindle Edition]

Marja Mills
3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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Book Description

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.

Mills was given a rare opportunity to know Nelle Harper Lee, to be part of the Lees’ life in Alabama, and to hear them reflect on their upbringing, their corner of the Deep South, how To Kill a Mockingbird affected their lives, and why Nelle Harper Lee chose to never write another novel.

Product Description

About the Author

Marja Mills is a former reporter for the Chicago Tribune and a staff Pulitzer Prize winner for a 2001 series about O'Hare Airport entitled Gateway to Gridlock. THE MOCKINGBIRD NEXT DOOR is her first book.

Product details

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 5393 KB
  • Print Length: 278 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 1594205191
  • Publisher: Penguin Press; 1st edition (15 July 2014)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B00G3L14KA
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #201,615 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars Puzzling 1 Nov. 2014
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I was a bit puzzled by this biography. Apart from all the controversy surrounding it, I didn't think it was a very interesting picture of the life of Harper Lee. I must admit that I feel a bit guilty about reading it in the first place since she was a woman who very much wanted to stay out of the limelight. The recluse must be respected. But of course I was tempted as it seemed as though she had given her consent. She takes her sister to feed the ducks and geese - my husband and I are at an age when we can do this every day if we wish - but it is a gentle pastime and nothing to get excited about. Her sister Alice was indeed a model for all of us - working in the law until late into her nineties, but descriptions of trips to fast food restaurants just makes me a bit depressed. I think that Harper Lee's own comment that she had said what she wanted to say in Mockingbird should have drawn a line under the matter. Everything else spoils the impact of her book.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
By Kimdli
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
This book is slow paced but atmospheric as it builds up a picture of the Lee sisters and their family background. It seems more like an autobiography of a relative not of a famous author. It has many anecdotes that are not particularly exciting but also some interesting insights. Overall it is a charming book if not exactly a page turner.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.6 out of 5 stars  561 reviews
97 of 112 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What a delight 3 Jun. 2014
By Rushmore - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
Like many Americans, I read To Kill a Mockingbird in high school. It made an impression at the time but not a huge one (required reading has that effect). As I have grown older I have come to appreciate the greatness of the book.

When I saw Harper Lee featured as a character in the Truman Capote movies, my interest was rekindled. The Mockingbird Next Door definitely appealed as a means to find out more about the reclusive author. This book is such a pleasant surprise.

The citizens of Monroeville, Alabama fiercely protect Nelle Harper Lee's privacy. The access granted to Chicago Tribune reporter Marja Mills is something of a miracle. She showed up at the right time with a backstory that appealed to Nelle (TKAM was the One Book, One Chicago choice). Her approach was perfectly and respectfully orchestrated - first talking to Nelle's older sister Alice and some trusted acquaintances, finally meeting Nelle herself. Eventually she moved next door to Nelle and Alice and integrated into their lives. It's easy to believe that no other human being could show up in Monroeville as a stranger - a reporter, no less - and accomplish what Marja Mills did. In fact, at the same time Marja was living next door, another author was in town researching a biography of Harper Lee and had absolutely no access to her and little if any cooperation from the other citizens of Monroeville.

I wish the book had more photos. The cover photo is of Nelle with Mary Badham, the young actress who played Scout in the movie of TKAM. Nelle based the character of Scout on herself. A picture of Alice and Nelle would have been much appreciated. However, the dearth of photos is consistent with Nelle's desire for privacy.

This book is so well written, so conversational, so descriptive. Mills does not share everything she heard during her time spent with the Lee sisters - she respects the boundaries set by Alice and Nelle - but what we do learn is so very satisfying. We are swept into the rhythm of this small Southern town, and we understand the forces that led Nelle to create her one and only novel, her masterpiece. Further, we come to understand why there was only one book. Rather than being a victim of her own celebrity, Nelle set strict limits, reinforced by those around her, and she and Alice have managed to lead a remarkable life. There is nothing flashy about their life but it is really quite wonderful. The phrase that came to my mind is that it reads like a novel, but I'm not quite sure what I mean by that. I guess, that the story of Marja meeting Nelle and becoming part of her life is so wonderful, that sometimes the things that happen in real life are more pleasing than a plot conceived by a novelist. Or maybe I mean something else - will have to ruminate on it and maybe edit this review later.

The story is set against the backdrop of Marja Mills's struggle with lupus. She is quite matter-of-fact in dealing with it, which turns out to be pretty inspirational as well as sobering. In a way her illness frees her to write this book. It's actually a confluence of circumstances that result in this very special memoir - truly a gift to fans of Harper Lee and appreciators of good writing. It may turn out to be my favorite book of 2014. Highest recommendation.

Updated 7/21/14: In conjunction with publication comes the "news" that Nelle Harper Lee did not consent to or cooperate with this book. Journalists can take a fact and express it in such a way as to give a susceptible reader grounds for judgment. I realize we will never know what really happened. The timing of the announcement is suspicious. I know that controversy sells books. I also know that people change their minds over time. I do think it is incredibly sad that this wonderful story is now tainted with the suggestion that Nelle was/is not a wiling participant. I still recommend the book as a good, well-written story. I wish I could recommend it without reservations.
147 of 172 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Harper Lee has spoken out against this biography! 2 Jun. 2014
By Sylviastel - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
As a vine reviewer, I was totally unaware that Harper Lee didn't want this biography until today. I deeply saddened by this news. This review was written before Harper Lee's disapproval and outrage. I am surprised that Harper Lee would cooperate with any journalist.

Original Review before Harper Lee's disapproval of the biography.

If you're a Harper Lee fan, you will definitely want to read this book. Marja Mills is one of the few American journalists allowed to know reclusive Harper Lee, author of the classic novel " To Kill A Mockingbird."

This book is an easy read but it is not a tell all. Mills befriends Harper and her older sister Alice Finch Lee. Alice will be a 103 years old and a practicing attorney in Monroeville, Alabama besides their father A.C. Lee who inspired the character, Atticus Finch, in her novel. Her sister Alice is known as Atticus in a dress by her sister Nelle Harper Lee.

The book isn't going to make startling revelations of Harper Lee's life. Unlike her former childhood friend Truman Capote, Harper Lee dreaded the spotlight and pressure of life in the public.

This book recognizes that Harper Lee has lead a classy, graceful, dignified life by her own rules. She doesn't give interviews but she doesn't live like a hermit either. She and her sister Alice have never married nor had children of their own but have led fulfilled lives.

In reading this memoir, I appreciate the author's relationship with her subjects. Mills befriends the Lee sisters and they befriend her. Their relationship is definite friendship where as even personal and intimate questions are off limits or not recorded but you get the sense of laughter, fun, stories, and joy in spending time together.

There is sadness towards the end when the author must return home to Chicago after being their friend and neighbor. If anything, I wished the book included photographs and to mention Harper Lee being awarded American National Medal of the Arts.

For recent development, Harper Lee hasn't given her permission for this book.
63 of 72 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Whether you like Nelle Harper Lee or not, you'll never forget her. 17 Jun. 2014
By D. Mckinzie - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
Added later: As everyone knows by now, allegations of this book being unauthorized have surfaced. I have read the information on that and at this time I do not believe that it is true. My reason why are at the end of this review.

As I read this fascinating story by a writer who came to know Nelle Harper Lee very well over a period of time (5 or 6 years) I would think, "I'm not sure that I would like this woman. I might like her sister, Alice, better." and then I would read some more and think, "I really like this woman." I think that she has probably caused this same kind of confusion and mixed feelings all of her life. After reading the entire story, I have decided that I would like her, in spite of her idiosyncrasies. But then, she'd probably say that I am the one with idiosyncrasies! She would not be shy about stating her opinion, that's for sure. The book is written in a different style from a lot of biographies, where the writer simply starts at the person's life and progresses forward. This one is more like a series of visits with friends, where we all get to go along for the ride, too. It answers some questions that we've all asked, such as why she never wrote another book and why did she use Harper instead of Nelle for her name. It also answers some that I never thought of asking, such as where did the name Harper come from and what nicknames did she and her sister Alice have. And no, I won't answer them here; read the book!! By the end of the book, I felt that it hadn't actually seemed like I read a book. I felt vaguely like there was something I needed to do to finish. But then I realized that the book actually felt like a series of visits with friends. Friends that you didn't actually see; friends that you don't talk back to, but, nevertheless, friends. Highly intelligent, well-read friends. I am a "reader" myself, but the amount of books that these two sisters have read is more than some libraries have! They are very well-read friends, indeed. So, you ask, is the book good? If you like the usual biography style; this one may disconcert you, but it's worth the read anyway because you will see the Lee sisters in a way that no other biographer has ever written about and you'll see what formed the woman who wrote the book that many (myself included) feel is THE Great American Novel. If you like a different approach, you may just love the book. I did!

Here's my take on this big brouhaha about Nelle Harper Lee saying she didn't authorize it: If you go back in and read the updates on the story about Harper Lee, the story against Mills is not nearly so black. Alice knew about this "letter" that "Harper" wrote (it was typed with a scrawled note from Harper Lee on the bottom) and she said that her sister no longer knew what she was doing and would sign anything that someone she trusted gave her. Look at the writing at the bottom of the letter in question, where she affirms that she wrote it. It's a scrawl like someone who can barely remember how to write. My mother is in a nursing home and believe me, up until the last year or two (when she began to lose all ability to write) I could take a letter out there vowing that she was robbed by Martians the week before and she would have signed it without a question AND written the part at the bottom saying she wrote it. Elderly people with serious health issues do what people they trust tell them to do. Alice, who was 100 at the time, BUT was still practicing law, said that Harper didn't know what she was signing AND didn't even remember the incident. Remember also that MANY of their friends are quoted (and spent a great deal of time with Mills and the Lees) and at least one of them has already come forward and said that it wasn't true; that the Lee sisters DID give their permission or else he would never have talked to Mills. This would be dozens of lawsuits if all those people were quoted without their permission (and they would not have given their permission if the Lees hadn't said it was okay) plus there is a lovely picture of "Scout" and Harper Lee on the cover, which I'm sure had to have her permission to be used. You have to know that this isn't Penguin Books' first time at the rodeo. A little controversy makes for good publicity; a real case of dozens of people being quoted without permission and photos used, also without permission, makes for a BAD lawsuit. By the time this book was about ready to come out, Harper Lee had had a stroke, if I remember correctly. That could cause her to have memory and understanding problems. I am not going to jump to conclusions about this. I think that both Lees DID give permissioin and Harper Lee's declining health has made her memory play tricks on her. You have to be around elderly people with problems like this to understand fully. My mother often calls me her mother or her sister. She frequently asked me (until recently, as she is declining) how my baby is and tells me that my brother has a new baby son. I am an only child with no children. My mother's life is an open book and she has never had any child but me (in fact, her doctor said that I was the first and that a second one would kill her because of some medical problems she had) yet she believes all that when she's saying it. The bottom line is that everyone is jumping to believe something that one of the sisters (Alice) has said is NOT true. And Alice was still a practicing attorney at the time; hardly likely to be imagining it. If definite proof comes out later, I'll accept it, but a typed letter, signed by someone with serious health issues, whose sister flatly contradicts it, doesn't convince me. It's a little early to be burning Mills in effigy.
263 of 316 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars The Liar Next Door 15 July 2014
By Paz Manansala - Published on
According to Harper Lee, this author is a calculating and manipulative woman who purposefully moved in next door and befriended her elderly sister - only to exploit her and falsify claims that Harper had ANY participation in this book.

As usual, Harper Lee says it best herself:
"Miss Mills befriended my elderly sister, Alice. It did not take long to discover Marja's true mision; another book about Harper Lee. I was hurt, angry and saddened, but not surprised. I immediately cut off all contact with Miss Mills, leaving town whenever she headed this way. I understand that Ms. Mills has a statement signed by my elderly sister claiming I cooperated with this book. My sister would have been 100 years old at the time...Rest assured, as long as I am alive any book purporting to be with my cooperation is a falsehood."

You can find the whole letter from Harper Lee here:
As a young adult librarian, I am disgusted that someone would go to such lows to falsely exploit and capitalize upon the name and reputation of one of the most revered authors in American history. Shame on her.
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars THE MOCKINGBIRD NEXT DOOR gives a sense of how attached Harper Lee is to the town and the culture that she has long inhabited. 21 July 2014
By Bookreporter - Published on
There is a pantheon of famous writers who only wrote one novel --- Boris Pasternak, Emily Bronte and Margaret Mitchell --- to name but three, and reclusive writers, such as Proust, Salinger and Pynchon. On both lists you would find the author of one of America’s best-known and most admired novels, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. Marja Mills, a skilled journalist with a friendly manner, managed to penetrate the private world of Nelle Harper Lee, living next door to her for over a year in Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Alabama.

Speculation about Lee’s bio always includes the assumption that TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD was drawn from her own childhood and surroundings, and that her heroine, a plucky, fanciful girl named Scout, was the avatar of Lee, a tomboy who loved books. Scout had a friend named Dill, a sensitive, highly intelligent boy; Nelle had a friend named Truman Capote. Scout had a lawyer father, Atticus, a brooding widower with a unique sense of legal and moral fairness that extended even to Negros in Maycomb, a small southern town, in the Jim Crow era; Lee’s father, A.C., was an attorney in their hometown of Monroeville; and until a few years ago, her older sister Alice, possibly the model for Scout’s brother, Jem, also practiced law.

In response to these autobiographical ticklers, Mills evinced from Nelle this tidbit: “The truth is always a better story.” For someone to whom words were always carefully chosen, that is a mouthful. One of the more interesting turns in the book concerns Nelle’s close but unconventional relationship with Capote. At first she recounts what a strange little boy he was, then gradually gears up to a declaration that she now considers him, by her definition, a “psychopath.”

Much of the Harper Lee story came to Mills from Alice and from friends in the local area. While Alice allowed Mills to record many hours of her family recollections, Nelle took a more spontaneous approach, taking her to feed ducks or have lunches at a local café named Radleys for the mysterious spectral figure in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. That touch is just one reminder of how much publicity has dogged Lee throughout her life, as the author of a bestselling and still widely studied novel that was made into an equally famous film. No wonder then that she retreated, and those who tried to ferret out her story were turned away, and not gently.

For that reason, Mills’s book is remarkable, even if it does not come quite near enough to answering questions that hover around the legendary Lee, and even if at times it seems as much about Mills as about her elusive subject. THE MOCKINGBIRD NEXT DOOR gives a sense of how attached Harper Lee is to the town and the culture that she has long inhabited. So much at home there that, as Mills notes, the locals pay her the courtesy of pretending she is nobody special.

Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott.
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