Partway through this book, I wrote (in my Potpourri 19) that this was a thoroughly delightful look at Nelle Harper Lee by someone who met her and formed a friendship with her later in life. Now that I’ve finished it, I have to say that the last half was just as enjoyable and interesting as the first half. Marja Mills was welcomed into the Lees’ Monroeville life and went into it with amazement, excitement, and perhaps just a little trepidation. Rarely had Alice and Nelle Lee accepted a new person, let alone a journalist, into their circle of friends, given their blessing to have their friends interviewed, and invited this new person to move in next door to them and chronicle their stories and daily events. Yet this is what happened, and the result is a book that gives us a rare glimpse into the thoughts and lifestyle of this somewhat reclusive author whose work is cherished by millions of readers.
You might question the use of the word “somewhat” as modifier for “reclusive” in that last sentence, but Harper Lee, famous author, went about her daily life, whether in New York City or in Monroeville, with a degree of anonymity that gave her a certain amount of freedom. One of her favourite books, we learn in this memoir, was Here Is New York (1949) by E.B.White, and the opening line could still make her cry in her eighties:
“On any person who desires such queer prizes,” White wrote in that first sentence that still moved Nelle, “New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and gift of privacy.”
This was true for Nelle Harper Lee. While the largeness of NYC gave her a certain anonymity, Monroeville was where she was protected by staunch friends and relatives. Nelle and Alice’s circle of friends included a Methodist minister and his wife, a retired hair dresser, a yoga instructor, a pharmacy clerk, a former librarian, and a retired bank president. Town socialites sometimes “referred, a bit dismissively, to Nelle’s unpretentious running buddies as “that crowd.” Slowly but surely, Marja was introduced to and accepted by “that crowd” as Nelle and Alice took her on jaunts around the countryside — out for breakfast, off to the laundromat, to dinner with friends, to area landmarks to soak up the south, and to feed the ducks.
In an interview included at the end of the novel, Marja was asked why she thought the Lee sisters agreed to cooperate with the book. Marja thought that it was partly to preserve “stories about their Aunt Alice and other colorful relatives. . . [the] history of their family and their region. . . [and that] Nelle had a few misconseptions that she wanted to correct.” However, she also felt that the soon to come out unauthorized biography on Nelle, and two movies about Truman Capote (early 2000s), along with Alice’s age, made a sense of urgency for recording their stories and setting the record straight.
Marja was surprised by Nelle from the beginning. “She wasn’t the reserved person I thought might show up. She was quite gregarious and witty.” She was also surprised by the simple way they lived without many modern conveniences (hence the trips to the laundromat), and surrounded by books. Both the Lee sisters read voraciously, and widely: history, mysteries, southern writers, newspapers, and magazines. They told hilarious family stories, sad ones, too, and lamented the loss of a culture. Nelle spoke candidly about “the difficulties that came with the immense popularity of To Kill a Mockingbird“, about her relationship with Truman Capote, about her parents, and friendships that grew out of the making of the movie, long-lasting friendships like with the Pecks, and her meeting with Oprah (for a girl, a black girl, growing up in poverty in Mississippi when she did, to accomplish what she has . . . It is remarkable.). The very few things Nelle would say were off the record “was to spare the feelings of a relative or a friend.” Their friends spoke of Nelle’s generosity, loyalty, and humour.
Marja was invited to share in a love of books (see a list of favourites in my Potpourri 19), football, history, movie nights, a variety of church services, and down-to-earth friendships. Alice, spent many hours on Sunday afternoons retelling family and regional stories while Marja taped them for transcription later. Since both sisters were hard of hearing, they often enjoyed companionable silences rather than making idle chatter, and it gave Marja a new perspective on silence.
This is a wonderful and touching memoir by a journalist who felt “the uneasy tug between inquisitive journalist and protective friend”, yet managed to present a balanced portrait of a woman who grew up “a bit of a nonconformist in a culture that valued the opposite”, chose later to “live out of the spotlight” and never published another book. Until now. * * * * *
I’ll soon be reviewing Go Set a Watchman. I admit I get a little frustrated when I read that it was the first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird. The video done by Yahoo, where close friends were interviewed, made it very clear to me that NHL considered them totally different books. Maybe my opinion will change by the time I’ve finished reading it. I don’t know. Time will tell.