Journalists have trekked to Harper Lee's hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, where she 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 in next door to the sisters and spent the next eighteen months there, sharing their lives as they slowly revealed their life stories and their love of literature and the South.
Washington Post :
"There are many reasons to be grateful for The Mockingbird Next Door , Marja Mills's wonderful memoir of Harper Lee and her sister....Sympathetic and respectful it may be, but The Mockingbird Next Door is no sycophantic puff piece. It is a zesty account of two women living on their own terms yet always guided by the strong moral compass instilled in them by their father.... It is also an atmospheric tale of changing small-town America; of an unlikely, intergenerational friendship between the young author and her elderly subjects; of journalistic integrity; and of grace and fortitude.... Mills doesn't avoid prickly issues, but she approaches them obliquely and accepts partial answers. Despite her enervating illness, Mills's writing is energetic. The Mockingbird Next Door is warm yet wistful, a lament for the books Harper Lee never wrote. It ends on an elegiac note, since by the time Mills was able to complete it, the Lees were fading fast, in separate assisted-living facilities. The world she depicts is sadly gone, but-lucky for us-she caught it just in time."
USA Today :
"A lot of people have a lot of ideas about what it means to be American, but here's one more: To Kill a Mockingbird . . .That fact alone makes The Mockingbird Next Door , a memoir by Chicago Tribune reporter Marja Mills about her friendship with the book's author, Harper Lee, a valuable artifact. It's also a thoughtful, sweet-tempered, witty piece of work . . . The Mockingbird Next Door offers a winning, nuanced portrait. Indeed, given Lee's deep privacy and advanced age, it seems unlikely we'll ever have a better record of a remarkable American life."
"[Marja Mills] has written an intimate, moving book about a rare talent."
NPR Fresh Air , Maureen Corrigan:
"Charming . . . The Mockingbird Next Door offers a rich sense of the daily texture of the Lee sisters' lives . . . The world that Mills was invited into over a decade ago has disappeared: both Alice (now 102) and Harper Lee (now 88) are in nursing homes, memories faded. Fortunately, in Mills, the sisters found a genteel family chronicler knocking at their door at the eleventh hour."
O, The Oprah Magazine :
"Mills has done what no writer before her could: She got Harper Lee to open up about her life, her work, and why she never wrote another book."
Boston Globe :
"A rare, surprising, and respectful look at the Lees and their milieu."
New York Post :
"It's a testament to one-time Chicago Tribune reporter Mills' skill-and being in the right place at the right time-that she befriended Lee and her lawyer sister, Alice, in the author's hometown of Monroeville, Ala., and was chosen to set the record straight on Lee. A wonderful, insightful and long overdue tale about the author of one of the greatest American novels."
Vanity Fair :
"Hot Type: The Mockingbird Sings: More important than these answers, however, is the voice of Lee herself-and her message, which we still need to hear."
"I'm grateful for the time Marja Mills spent with both Lee sisters and their perceptive hometown friends . . . a gentle and evocative portrait of Monroeville today . . . Ms. Mills' brief, charming memoir offers a rare picture of the reclusive author in her later years, a valuable addition to Harper Lee lore."
"In telling their story in The Mockingbird Next Door , Mills writes with the amazement of one who feels kissed by fate. We in turn are blessed with an intimate portrait of Lee."
"The development of trust and friendship between Mills and the Lee sisters took time, but even in those first minutes, the relationship was nearly unprecedented ...Told charmingly in the Lees' southern drawl and with the affection and closeness that the story reveals, The Mockingbird Next Door is quietly admiring and satisfyingly intimate, and will captivate not only fans of Lee's great American novel, but fans of real people l
Do you want to take a trip? You can say no."
Tim Bannon, my editor at the Chicago Tribune, stood at my cubicle. He ran the daily features section on the fifth floor of the Gothic Tribune Tower in downtown Chicago and was pleasantly low-key by newspaper standards. Tim knew I liked to travel for stories, and that if the story took me to an unusual part of the country, so much the better. I had loved spending time at a monastery in rural Missouri for one story and at The Citadel, the military college in South Carolina, for another. Tim also knew I had been out sick a lot that year, 2001. In 1995, I had been diagnosed with lupus, an autoimmune condition that frequently left me fatigued. I wanted him to know I was still able to do my job. I purposely accepted before finding out more.
"Sure. Where to?"
Tim saw my quizzical look and smiled.
"It's Harper Lee's hometown. We know she doesn't give interviews. But I think it's worth going there anyway."
A couple of weeks earlier, the Chicago Public Library had chosen the elusive author's To Kill a Mockingbird as the first selection in its One Book, One Chicago program. The idea was to get Chicagoans in every corner of the city reading and discussing the same book. It didn't hurt that To Kill a Mockingbird happened to be the favorite of Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, as he told me a couple of months earlier for a story I wrote about his reading habits. That he was a reader at all surprised some folks. His press conferences were hard to follow. He didn't necessarily exit the same sentences he entered. But he loved books, and he especially loved To Kill a Mockingbird. In that, he was part of a phenomenon that began in 1960 and continues to this day.
When the novel was published in July of that year, Harper Lee was a few months past her thirty-fourth birthday. From the beginning, Lee was a collection of contradictions. She was an Alabama native whose love of the state's back roads was matched only by her love of New York City streets. Her public shyness masked a wicked wit. During the publicity engagements for the novel's publication, when she wasn't averting her gaze, her dark eyes could alternate between a penetrating stare and a mischievous gleam. She was a distinctive blend of engaging and elusive.
Lee labored for several years to produce the novel. She coaxed the story out of a Royal manual typewriter in her small Manhattan cold-water flat and on visits home. Atticus Finch is a principled attorney and the widowed father of two children. As the novel begins, his tomboy daughter, Scout, is about to turn six. Her older brother, Jem, is almost ten. With their father, they endure the suspicion and outright hatred directed at Atticus when he defends Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell, in their segregated town. In the novel's climactic scene, Bob Ewell, father of Mayella, comes after the children. Boo Radley, the neighborhood recluse who has frightened and fascinated the children in equal measure, saves them.
Through the experiences of Scout, Jem, and their best friend, Dill, Lee paints a vivid picture of small-town childhood in the segregated South. She also explores complex themes in the lives of her characters, from mental illness to addiction, racism, and the limitations society imposed on women.
The story of small-town childhood and racial injustice in Depression-era Alabama garnered glowing reviews and stayed on the best-seller list for nearly two years. In 1961, Lee won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The Academy Award-winning 1962 film version of the novel, starring Gregory Peck, became a classic in its own right.
It was a stunning debut. With time, Lee's novel became something more: a national touchstone in a culture becoming ever more fragmented. In a 1991 survey, the Library of Congress asked readers which boo