Saturday, November 1, 2014

The Mockingbird Next Door

The Mockingbird Next Door

Adult biography
"Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I
first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass
grew on the sidewalks; the courthouse sagged in the square..." I don't
have to tell you where I got that quote. If you're enough of a
bibliophile to be reading a book review blog, you recognized it as
readily as you can pick your childhood home out of a picture. For
many of us it's a spiritual home to return to again and again and
always see with new eyes.
If you were to ask American readers, an increasingly small
subset of our nation's population, which amazing book disappointed
them the most when the author failed to write a second novel I have no
doubt whatsoever Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird would top the
list. If you're like me, you've wondered more than once why someone
with the talent to encode her writing into our hearts and minds, to
make a faraway time and place come vividly alive would not follow
through. Wonder no more. Marja Mills' The Mockingbird Next Door:
Life With Harper Lee holds the answers and much much more.
In 2001 Chicago selected To Kill A Mockingbird for a city wide
read. Mills, a Chicago Tribune reporter, was assigned to go to Lee's
home town and try to interview her. The very private author was not
considered to be a friend of the press. Not at all sure that she
would succeed where so many others failed, Mills knocked on the door
of the home Lee shared with her older sister, Alice. She was in for a
big surprise, a truly rare encounter without which The Mockingbird
Next Door would have seen the light of day.
For some reason the Lee sisters discerned Mills to be more
trustworthy than other would be interviewers. Alice let her into
their home. Nelle (Harper's first name) visited her at her hotel.
This was only the first in a long series of conversations that
blossomed into intimate friendship. Mills actually ended up renting
the house next door to the Lee household for a year and a half,
becoming part of the daily life of the sisters and their social
circle, meeting the people and visiting the places and reading the
books that they believed would give her a feel for a younger Nelle and
the world she grew up in.
Mills' open and gracious tone brings the reader into this world
in a most intimate and delightful way. You meet the ten-year-old who
was worried that her sister's wedding would eclipse all the rest of a
Depression era Christmas and then thrilled to receive a bicycle, the
young woman heading off to New York to make her mark on the world, the
wildly successful author, stunned by the intrusiveness of the American
public and wondering if she should have submitted the manuscript to be
published... You also get to walk the streets of that tired old town
where now SUVs dwarf the sagging courthouse.
With the holidays coming up, I do believe The Mockingbird Next
Door would be a most excellent gift for anyone who treasures To Kill A
On a personal note, one thing Harper Lee said struck a real chord with
me. She was glad To Kill A Mockingbird came out when it did. If it
was published now it would have been classified YA and never have
reached an adult audience. If I remember correctly back then YA was
not labeled as such. It's only relatively recently that it has
emerged as a level seperated from both adult and juvenile literature.
Bear with me now. This will be a valid comparison. When movie
ratings became the law of the land a lot of producers put gratuitous
sex, violence, and bad words in their flicks to avoid what they called
the curse of a P or PG rating which would presumably diminish their
appeal to an older audience. I've noticed a number of gentle,
nuanced, insightful novels go on the YA shelves while a lot of what
goes in the adult wing is too graphic for my tastes. Could YA
publishers be the ones taking some of the best stories around? Could
some writers feel a need to pimp their offerings with sex and violence
to market their offerings to grown ups? Just something to ponder.
A great big shout out goes out to all who made The Mockingbird Next
Door possible.
Julia Emily Hathaway

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