Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, is etched into American literary history and culture. The characters of Atticus, Gem, and Scout Finch, and Boo Radley and the tense story line of race and justice in a small southern town and brought to fuller life on the movie screen on Christmas Day, 1962, is forever a favorite in the minds and hearts of people around the world. Its successful publication and Pulitzer award guaranteed its author, Harper Lee, a place in American literary history alongside fellow southern writers such as William Faulkner. But four years after the book’s publication, three years after winning the Pulitzer, and two years after the movie debut, Lee shuts the door on all publicity and becomes a recluse refusing to give any more interviews about her, her writing, and her next novel.
And people ask “Why?”
In 2001 Chicago Tribune writer Marja Mills is asked to do an interview of Lee (know to her family and friends as Nelle) in conjunction with a Chicago Public Library city wide effort called One Book, One Chicago in which To Kill A Mockingbird was chosen as the book to be read across Chicago. With great skepticism by her editor (“We know she doesn’t give interviews. But I think it’s worth going there anyway.”) Mills heads with a staff photographer to Monroeville, Alabama and hoped for interview with Lee. She gets the interview (haltingly and cautiously at first) and more – a rare, very rare glimpse into the life and world of Nelle Harper and her sister attorney Alice (“Atticus in a Skirt”) in a fascinating truly behind the scenes look at who Nelle Harper Lee had become (or is that “always was?”) nearly fifty years after her self-imposed “retirement.”
If you are looking for answers to main questions as to why Harper Lee never published another novel and why she has refused to give interviews since 1964, you will get bits of answers to your questions but never a full answer. For as Mills makes clear in her book the Lee’s still kept many things from her (including in large measure , I think, themselves).
If you are expecting this to be a biography detailing Lee’s life since her withdraw, you will be disappointed. Instead you will find a wonderfully fair and humane depiction of two sisters (as I, also think, Mills spends as much ink on Alice as she does Nelle) who have never let fame, fortune, modernity, and even post-modernity influence them. For one of the things that I love about this book is that not only are we treated to a wonderful portrait of two sisters, one world famous, but also a sketch of history in one small town in the American South.
I was not sure what to expect as I began reading as I was aware of the conflict over the issue of whether or not Mills had been “authorized” to write the book. I believe she was and perhaps the denial of approval was another part of the Lee mystique, but may not.
But I loved this book and feel that is a gift to us as a respectfully “peek” into the lives of two extraordinary women, one of whom has become a true legend and inspired many people to put pen to paper (or key stroke to screen) and seek to write a novel about life, hope, hate, justice, and the run of human experience. Thank you Marja!
I rate this book an “Outstanding” Read
Note: I checked out this book from my local library and chose to write a review.