What Happened to Nelle?

The Mockingbird Next Doorby Marja Mills

Penguin. 304p $17

Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s recently rediscovered first novel, is a best seller on Amazon, and Marja Mills is likely among those eager to read the reclusive Lee’s first published work in more than 50 years.

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Mills’s interest in Lee’s rediscovered novel may be keener than most because of her unanticipated and improbable friendship with the novelist, which Mills recounts in her intriguing memoir The Mockingbird Next Door.

After the Chicago Public Library program One Book, One Chicago selects Lee’s beloved To Kill a Mockingbird in 2001, the then Chicago Tribune journalist is thrilled when her editor assigns her to visit Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Ala. The trip to the model for Lee’s beloved Pulitzer Prize-winning novel’s Maycomb allows Mills to try to figure out one of our time’s more intriguing, enduring literary mysteries: why Harper Lee didn’t write another book after To Kill a Mockingbird. Mills, however, isn’t sanguine about securing an interview; Lee typically declines interview requests.

After Mills and her photographer Terrence arrive at the Lee home and Terrence waits in an idling rental car, Mills writes, “I felt uneasy knocking on the door. But I needed to be able to tell my editors I at least tried.”

Eighty-nine and still practicing law at her father, AC’s, firm (the father prefers AC), Lee’s older sister Alice lets Mills into the sisters’ lives. Lee dedicated To Kill a Mockingbird to Alice and AC, the model for Atticus Finch. Lee says Alice is “Atticus in a skirt.” Alice died in November 2014 at 103. She, as Mills notes, was her sister’s gatekeeper, which explains the unikelihood of her encounter with Mills and the quick rapport they develop. As the visit ends, Alice encourages Mills to interview a close family friend, the Methodist minister Tom Butts.

This visit is the first of successive improbabilities the author experiences. The next one occurs the next day, in, of all places, a Best Western in Monroeville. “The knock,” Mills writes, “came at the appointed time.”

The woman opposite her with “the short white hair, the large glasses, the black sneakers fastened with Velcro,” is Harper Lee. Then 74, she doesn’t necessarily resemble the author of a book which has sold more than 40 million copies. Despite Nelle’s appearance, “when,” Mills writes, “she was up to mischief or giving a gift, you could see the girl in her.” Lee insists the meeting is a visit, not an interview, and that she should call her Nelle, as close family and friends did.

Why the sisters open up to Mills isn’t precisely clear. According to Butts, Mills’s letter requesting an interview “was polite and not wheedling or demanding.” The author also speculates that the Lees wanted to tell their story before Alice died.

The Lees encouraged Mills after she published her Tribune piece, and she becomes better acquainted with them during subsequent visits to Monroeville. When lupus, which causes great fatigue, compels Mills to go on disability in 2003, her journey takes its most improbable turn.

In 2004, Mills, with, she insists, the Lees’ blessing, moves into the house next door to them. Nelle hopes Mills will write a book to correct, in Nelle’s words, “the forty-year file on Harper Lee.” This “tangle of myths and half truths,” as Mills writes, include rumors she may have received help writing her novel and speculation about her sexual orientation. Mills successfully refutes the first claim while judiciously leaving questions about Nelle’s sexual orientation open-ended.

Nelle, however, later publicly disavowed her cooperation with the book. Now 88, Nelle suffered a stroke in 2007, which may explain why she retracted her enthusiasm for the book, which Mills insists she possessed.

During her 18 months next door, Mills discovers the Lees are eager to repudiate Truman Capote’s claim their mother Frances twice tried to drown young Nelle. Although Frances, concerned about her infant daughter Louise’s inability to gain weight, collapsed mentally, she, Alice recalls, regained her equilibrium.

You couldn’t trust Capote’s version of events, furthermore, because “Truman,” as Nelle says, “was a psychopath, honey.” Nelle’s complicated relationship with Capote will most heighten readers’ curiosity. The outlandish personality, who failed as an artist because he couldn’t surmount his addictions, continues to fascinate.

In one of our time’s great literary coincidences, Capote lived next door to Nelle when they were children and became the model for Dill in her novel. When they lived in Manhattan, Nelle achieved fame with To Kill a Mockingbird, while Capote’s career stalled.

Some of Mills’s more memorable passages describe Nelle’s anxiety over two 2005 films detailing Nelle’s efforts to help Capote write his nonfiction novel In Cold Blood. She agreed to help him because she correctly believed the book would jumpstart his career. She felt, though, that he envied her Pulitzer Prize, and she resented his implication that he helped her write her novel.

Readers will wonder how the discovery of Go Set a Watchman may alter Mills’s analysis and insights. Written prior to To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman shouldn’t be considered Nelle’s second book. Had Mills known about the earlier novel, she would likely have used the phrase follow-up instead of second book to explore why Nelle didn’t write another book after To Kill a Mockingbird.

Why she didn’t, even in this new context, is the most pertinent question this memoir explores. Immediately after To Kill a Mockingbird’s publication, Nelle believed there would be another book but gradually decided not to write it. Mills recounts a late-night conversation between Nelle and Butts, while drinking scotch, when Nelle insists the pressure and publicity attending To Kill a Mockingbird drove her away. And, Nelle says, she had already said what she wanted to say.

That assertion will arouse readers’ skepticism.

Mills, however, does not resolve the outstanding, critical question of Nelle’s life: why the woman who wanted, in her words, “to be the Jane Austen of south Alabama,” didn’t write more books after her famous novel; and that lack of resolution will likely frustrate some readers. The memoir will reward readers more who appreciate the journalist’s implausible friendship with a woman the world knows as Harper Lee but she knows as Nelle.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Henry George
2 years 5 months ago
Perhaps huge success does something to the creative spirit - the fear of not having as great a success restricts the freedom necessary to be truly creative. How many Musical Bands fail to follow up their first big hit. Being a "Starving Artist" may spur on one's creativity.

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