So where is Harper Lee, and who is she? Why did she never write another book? Is she still alive? All those questions are answered in Marja Mills' inside look at Harper Lee and her life in Monroeville, Alabama. Harper, known by all her close friends as Nelle (Nelle Harper Lee is her full name), is notoriously reclusive. We don't know much about her. Marja Mills begins her extraordinary journey into the life of Harper Lee with a simple letter. Marja is a journalist, writing about Chicago's One Book, One Chicago project: a city-wide reading of To Kill a Mockingbird. She's assigned a story that requires her to travel to Monroeville, Nelle's hometown, to talk to townspeople about Harper Lee. Everyone knows in the news industry that Harper will not grant interviews and her circle of friends won't speak about her. Marja doesn't expect much, but writes Nelle and her sister Alice a letter explaining why she's traveling to Monroeville. A simple courtesy letter. And it opens up an unforgettable period in Marja's life that leads to a friendship not only with Nelle's close friends, but Nelle and her sister Alice. A friendship that includes travels to feed ducks, dinners at small diners, a road trip to New York City, and even renting the house next door to Nelle and Alice.
Nelle and Alice are two extraordinary women. At the time of this book, Alice was in her 90's, still practicing law every day in the law firm their father (the basis for Atticus Finch) began decades before. Nelle, the younger sister, spends part of her time living with Alice in Monroeville, and part of her time in New York City, going unrecognized and remaining anonymous to all but her close New York friends. They live simply; the royalties from Mockingbird have meant that Nelle doesn't ever have to work. They are fiercely protective of Nelle's privacy and the legacy of her one epic novel.
I did truly enjoy this look into Nelle Harper Lee's life. You do come to know Nelle and Alice and enjoy spending time with them. Both are incredibly brilliant, sharp, and so well read it puts the rest of us to shame. And some questions are answered: what was Nelle's relationship with Truman Capote like? Why did she never write another book? Will she ever write a memoir? An intensely private woman who attempts every day to live a quiet life surrounded by her books, friends, and the legacy of Mockingbird. I felt Marja's book was very respectful, and shows an obvious deep affection for Nelle and Alice. They are two walking repositories of the history of their town, the people who are no longer there, and a time that is long gone. A gentle and poignant look at small town life, and what fame can do to someone who is gifted in so many ways, but finds the legacy they have created a difficult burden to bear, even after so many years.
Thank you to Dani at Penguin Press for a review copy.
Rating: 8/10 for a respectful and thoughtful look at the intensely private life of a beloved author.
Available in hardcover and e-book.