The Mockingbird Next Door by Marja Mills

I finished this book a couple of weeks ago, and have been debating with myself ever since about writing what I think about it.  Well, not exactly writing about the book, but about the subject - Nelle Harper Lee.  Then I realized I wasn't going to get any peace until I put my thoughts down on paper, or in this instance, the screen.

Disclaimer here: I grew up with To Kill a Mockingbird and it probably influenced my first career choice, the law. If I could have been another Atticus Finch, I would probably still be practicing. 

First of all, I totally believe Marja Mills had the Lees' permission, both from Nelle and sister Alice, to write the book.  Mills has written what is basically a softball piece, filled with compliments, admiration, and respect for both women. Alice comes across as the better of the two sisters, most definitely. A tireless worker (she practiced law into her hundredth year), her sister's shield and advocate, she epitomized, as Mills says, a female Atticus Finch.  She was a woman to be reckoned with.

Yet it is Nelle who dominates the book, probably because she's the subject the publisher wanted and because of who she is: the reclusive Harper Lee.  Mills admits she deleted stories and people about whom NHL spoke because NHL didn't want to hurt anyone's feelings.  The friends who accepted Mills into their homes were open and inclusive, and spoke, apparently, with NHL's permission. Otherwise, I can't imagine one of NHL's closest friends revealing the late night drunken rants over the telephone that came from NHL. He finally put a stop to it when his wife was home alone and on the receiving end of the ugliness coming out of a bottle.  This brief mention of alcoholism and another mention by a professor who opined that NHL didn't write a book she briefly researched because of the alcohol are the only mentions of a severe, crippling problem.

What has me in a funk is this: what a waste of talent and life.  NHL wrote well, and it is a crying shame she never wrote again. (The book coming out in July is supposedly the first draft, from the viewpoint of an adult Scout, written before TKAM.) In fact, it's criminal that she chose to retreat into a bottle and whatever demons she battled instead of facing them. What she could have given the world!  I keep imagining NHL marching with protesters in Ferguson, and what that would have meant.

Nothing can change the fact that she chose to disappear as much as possible, with appearances here and there.  If only she had used her talent wisely and given us more to remember than one very good book.  It's always horrible to learn your idol is a drunken, selfish, and sometimes less than nice, curmudgeon.   I just hope I can separate her life from the book, or one of my lynch pins is going to buckle and break.

Maybe one day I'll get over it.