I love it when I’m getting into a book, really enjoying it, and there are literary references that sound so delicious I can’t wait to start adding some of them to my library before I’ve even finished said book. That’s what’s happening as I’m reading The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee by Marja Mills.
I was reading comments the other day on a blog where someone suggested others should check interviews with Harper Lee and two others responded with, “What interviews? No-one has interviewed her since 1965!” However, Marja Mills, whose bio says she is
a former reporter and feature writer for the Chicago Tribune, where she was a member of the staff that won a Pulitzer Prize for a 2001 series about the O’Hare Airport entitled “Gateway to Gridlock”,
visited Monroeville, Alabama about 15 years ago, met Alice Lee (Nelle’s older sister) who had an instant rapport with Marja, and thus began a friendship and trust, with Nelle herself agreeing to let Marja record stories that might be lost once Alice (15 years older than Nelle) was gone, and for her to publish a memoir of their time together.
So far, I’ve found this to be a charming, sensitive telling of how Marja became a part of the circle of friends in Monroeville, and spent a year living in the house next door to the Lee sisters. They included her in outings to feed ducks, dinners at the country club, personal tours of important landmarks throughout the area, and asked their friends to feel free to talk to her about the Lee family.
One of the great things, for me, was the stack of books Alice kept on the floor and side table beside her recliner,
Through some feat of creative engineering, she was able to pile her books and papers into haphazard stacks that threatened to topple over but didn’t. On top of a couple of hardcover British histories she had piled yellow legal pads, manila file folders, handwritten correspondence, a Smithsonian catalog, a sheaf of papers, and another couple of books. She didn’t seem to lose track of those things, though. She simply remembered where she put them.
Alice had done extensive research on their family history and both sisters were extremely keen on British history, tracing them to one of the feudal landowners at Runnymede forcing King John to accept the Magna Carta in 1215, and an ancestor who helped translate the King James Version of the Christian Bible for the Church of England.
Nelle recommended many books and authors to Marja to improve her knowledge of the history of the south. Books such as Carl Carmer‘s Stars Fell on Alabama, W.J. Cash‘s The Mind of the South, James Agee and Walker Evans‘s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and The Ballad of Little River by Paul Hemphill, to name a few. A new book at the time by Mary Pipher called Another Country about aging and the generation gap. She also recommended Alabamian Mary Ward Brown‘s Tongues of Flames, William Faulkner, and Eudora Welty. The Asquiths by Colin Clifford came highly recommended, too. And of course, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, Nelle’s childhood friend the character Dill was based on, comes up and it’s certainly high time I read that one!
Some movies were highly praised as well: Kind Hearts and Coronets, Best in Show, and A Mighty Wind. So much to capture your interest and add to my own precarious piles scattered here and there around my house. I’ll be talking more about the book itself another day. Soon, I hope. Cheers!