For fans of To Kill a Mockingbird, the desire to know more about its author is common. What is her personality? Why didn’t she ever publish again?
The book starts when Mills is assigned to write an article about the mysterious Harper Lee for the Chicago Tribune. Knowing the disappointment of other journalists who set out to write about the reclusive novelist, Mills and her photographer head to Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. They plan to talk with the knowledgeable people around town, travel the streets and become familiar with the world of Lee. Before they leave, they plan to stop by Lee home in hopes of landing an interview with Lee’s sister.
To Mills’ surprise, Lee’s older sister Alice answers the door and grants an interview, as well as a tour of the family home. Thus, an unlikely friendship begins.
After more than two years of work and friendship, Mills moves into the house next door to the Lees. She becomes part of their circle of friends. She learns Nelle’s habits and temperament. She tours the state with them, learning the often-strange town names found throughout the state.
This book is definitely Mills’ memoir. It was marketed as such, but I expected the focus to be much more on Lee. Although the mysterious author is the center of attention, it takes a full ten chapters to get to that point. Lee might have finally spoken with a journalist, but she was still selective about what was on the record and what was meant for friendly conversation.
Rather than a sequential recounting of Lee’s life, the books is more a collection of stories in which the novelist’s character is revealed. It is the story of Mills’ conversations, travels and adventures with the Lees and their close companions. Through each tale, readers learn more about Lee. They learn the answers to decades of questions.
The Mockingbird Next Door is a slow read. It’s fascinating and maintains some of the Southern charm contained in the pages of Lee’s novel. After all, Maycomb was based on Lee’s hometown. It’s informative about the Lee sisters, their friends and family, their hometown and the obscure history of Alabama. It’s good, but not a page-turner, possibly because the element of suspense is missing. Still, it’s worth the read, for history and literature lovers especially.