Monday, July 21, 2014

The Mockingbird Next Door by Marja Mills--A rare peek inside Harper Lee's life

Release Date: July 15, 2014
Publisher: Penguin
ISBN: 978-1594205194
ARC Source: Penguin

Pretty much everyone has been exposed to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird at some point, whether it is through personal exploration or a school reading assignment. Many, including myself, will tell you that the novel has left an imprint on their reading lives, forever engraving Scout and Atticus into their list of unforgettable characters.

After To Kill a Mockingbird was published 1960, it quickly won the Pulitzer Prize and became a staple in American classrooms. To this day, teachers, like myself, anxiously wait to ask their students on the first day of school if they have read the novel, silently hoping the answer is no. We each want ownership of exposing Maycomb to today’s generation. As teachers, we have always finished the novel and nostalgically left Scout and Jem’s town behind, wondering what life was really like, how much of the story was based on Lee’s life, and why Lee became so reclusive. Now, Marja Mills steps forward with her memoir to give us some answers.

Marja Mills was able to do what many can only dream of—meet, interview, and live on the same road as an award-winning author. Not any author, either, but the author of one of the most beloved books ever written—Nelle Harper Lee. Through her memoir, Mills eloquently, and with a nod to Lee's prose, describes life with Nelle and her older sister Alice in Monroeville, Alabama, the inspiration for Maycomb. First visiting for an interview for a story in the Chicago Tribune, Mills becomes acquaintances, then eventually close friends, with both Nelle and Alice.

Progressively earning Nelle’s trust, Mills is able to listen to numerous stories of the South, specifically about Nelle and Alice’s childhood memories. It becomes easy to see all of the influences that helped Harper Lee create Scout and Atticus Finch. In Scout, we see Nelle’s curiosity, spunk, and compassion. In Atticus, we see Alice’s passion for law and equality. Everywhere, we see Maycomb, though the Lee sisters readily admit that Monroeville has changed too much and no longer represents the town they loved.

The memoir not only follows Mills’ encounters with the Lee sisters. Instead, it is, in its own right, an account of how Mills suffers from Lupus, of which she was diagnosed in 2001. Mills powers through her condition to continue to interview and research for her article and beyond for this book. She, unwillingly and ashamedly, is cared for by Nelle and Alice when her Lupus flares, and it is in these moments that we see the Harper Lee that we all envision and wish to meet.

For other teachers out there, use this memoir to enhance your To Kill a Mockingbird curriculum. It’s worth it. For readers and lovers of the book itself, use this memoir to enhance your understanding of the secretive woman who brought to life a town and characters that are immortal in American literature and in our hearts.

Addition: The veracity and authenticity of this memoir has been called into question with several statements by Harper Lee that she did not approve of the biography.

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