“The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee,” a critically acclaimed memoir of the famously reclusive author, hits shelves Tuesday – and it’s already steeped in controversy.
The book chronicles a years-long friendship between the Lee sisters and author Marja Mills, a former Chicago Tribune journalist who moved next door to the pair in 2004, formed a friendship, and received their blessing for her book, according to Mills.
According to the book’s description, Mills “spent the next eighteen months there, sharing coffee at McDonalds and trips to the Laundromat with Nelle, feeding the ducks and going out for catfish supper with the sisters, and exploring all over lower Alabama with the Lees’ inner circle of friends.”
On the eve of Mills’ memoir’s debut, however, Lee has issued a statement vehemently repudiating Mills’s account and saying she was “hurt, angry, and saddened” by “Marja’s true mission; another book about Harper Lee."
(See full statement here.)
“Rest assured, as long as I am alive any book purporting to be with my cooperation is a falsehood,” the 88-year-old Lee wrote in the strongly worded letter.
This isn’t the first time Lee has indicated her disapproval with the project. In 2011, when the book was announced, Lee issued a short statement saying, “Contrary to recent news reports, I have not willingly participated in any book written or to be written by Marja Mills. Neither have I authorized such a book. Any claims otherwise are false.”
In an email sent to the Monitor, Mills responded to Lee’s statement.
“I can only speak to the truth, that Nelle Harper Lee and Alice F. Lee were aware I was writing this book and my friendship with both of them continued during and after my time in Monroeville,” her statement reads. “The stories they shared with me that I recount in the book speak for themselves.”
Mills included a letter from Alice Lee, Harper Lee’s sister, which she says “makes clear that Nelle Harper Lee and Alice gave me their blessing.”
In the letter, dated May 12, 2011, Alice Lee suggests Harper Lee’s 2011 statement against Mills’ book was a mistake. She writes that she had made no such statement and that it was written by a third party who brought it to Harper Lee to sign.
“Poor Nelle Harper can’t see and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her by any one in whom she has confidence,” Alice Lee writes in the letter. “Now she has no memory of the incident.”
The letter also quotes Tom Butts, whom Mills says is a good friend of Harper Lee and is supportive of Mills and “The Mockingbird Next Door.”
Where does the truth lie? There appears to be no easy answer.
As Entertainment Weekly pointed out, the famously reclusive Harper Lee “hasn’t written a book since “Mockingbird,” doesn’t grant interviews, and generally stays out of the public eye, so it’s not hard to believe she didn’t give Mills her blessing.
Yet those who have read Mills’s book say it appears authentic. The book is largely an affectionate, gentle portrait of Lee, including details about some of the quiet pleasures she has enjoyed over the years in her life in Monroeville – attending church, sharing meals with friends, going fishing.
It’s possible that Mills failed to communicate her true motive in befriending the Lee sisters. Or that Harper Lee changed her mind or is simply upset about the attention.
(This wouldn’t be the first time Harper Lee has publicly lashed out at those who seek to chronicle her life and work. She recently settled a lawsuit against her own hometown for its mockingbird-esque logo and for opening a museum in her honor.)
One thing is clear: Authorized or not, Mills has received widespread praise for her book.
The Washington Post’s Heller McAlpin called it "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 … the model for Atticus Finch in his youngest daughter's first and only novel", and "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."
Of Harper Lee, Mills writes in her memoir, “I had assumed I would have to keep my distance from the famously private Harper Lee but I couldn’t help but enjoy her company. She might have been prickly but she was a delightful companion.”
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.