I just finished reading Mockingbird, A Portrait of Harper Lee, by Charles J. Shields. If you take a look at my "Favorite Books" list, at the left side-bar of my blog, you will see that one of them is To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. I'm far from alone in my love of the book, since it was a Pulitzer Prize winner, has sold more than thirty million copies, and, even now, 47 years after it's first publication, continues to sell a million new copies a year. But, until the publication of the book I am reviewing, little could be found about the author, Nelle Harper Lee (pen name, Harper Lee). She wrote this one outstanding novel, lived in the limelight for awhile, never wrote another novel, and seemingly slipped into anonymity. I've always wondered about Lee, so eagerly read this book, hoping to learn more about her.
It is common knowledge that the Finch family, portrayed in To Kill a Mockingbird, was modeled after Lee's own family, and that the little tomboy, known as Scout, in the book, was based upon Nelle Harper Lee, herself. The drama that unfolds, namely the trial of a black man who was accused of raping a white woman, was also based, loosely, upon one or more events from her childhood.
Shields, in writing Mockingbird, interviewed 600 people to learn the real story of Nelle Harper Lee. Lee was born (1926) and raised in Monroeville, Alabama, where she still lives with her older sister, Alice. Her childhood friend and neighbor was Truman Capote. The child character, Dill, in To Kill a Mockingbird, is based on Capote.
Mockingbird, the biography, gives insight into Lee's early years, when she lived with a father she adored and a mother who was, most likely, mentally ill. She later went to college, where she was a maverick, and made few friends; and then to law school. She did not complete law school, disappointing her father, who wanted her to follow in his, and her sister's, footsteps by becoming an attorney. But by this time in life, Lee knew she wanted to write. She moved to New York City, where she began writing what would be her only novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. A large section of the biography details Lee's friendship and collaboration with Truman Capote, particularly her role in doing research for his book, In Cold Blood.
There was, for me, a personal sense of disappointment that developed as I read Lee's biography. Based upon her novel, I naively dove into this book, certain that I would be reading about a kindred spirit (so to speak) - someone I would have befriended, had the opportunity arisen. But the farther I read, the clearer it became that I would have found it difficult to have been friends with Nelle Harper Lee. Her relationships were complicated and limited, and, to many, she was seen as reclusive.
Learning about Lee has renewed my interest in To Kill a Mockingbird, and in no way diminished my respect for her talents, nor my love of her novel. I intend to re-read it soon, and to watch, again, the movie that was based on the book.