Book review: Marja Mills "The Mockingbird Next Door" | WKAR

Oct 16, 2014

After the enormous success of her book "To Kill a Mockingbird", the world belonged to Harper Lee. She could have done anything, the possibilities were endless. And yet, all she wanted to do was escape to her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama and be left alone. For more than 40 years, the world could only speculate about this important and very silent American novelist. Was she writing? Was there maybe something more serious psychologically going on? Why did she hate the attention so much? It is because of Harper Lee’s long self-exile that makes "The Mockingbird Next Door", a new memoir by Marja Mills, so initially seductive.

Marja lived next door to Harper and her sister Alice, and claims she had their blessing to write a book about them. She spends her time being at their beck and call, recording their conversations, and driving them around their small town. Harper Lee tells a different story, releasing two statements that condemned the work. Lee needn’t have bothered however, as the book is hardly a threat.

"The Mockingbird Next Door" tells a story that would seem familiar for anyone who has elderly and retired family members. If you didn’t know the work was about the reclusive Harper Lee, you might confuse her story with that of a grandparent’s, as she spends her days fishing, going to McDonalds, doing the laundry, complaining about technology, and watching the Super Bowl. She even reads Harry Potter. Basically, this is Harper Lee just hanging out, and there is a very good chance this is all she has done since her seminal work.

Frustratingly, as we delve into Harper Lee’s mundane routine, the book always seems to be hinting at something bigger. Mills keeps claiming to be recording Harper with her knowledge, collecting stories from both sisters; even at the end, when she moves away she describes notebooks filled with material from her subject. Were all those notes really just for this very slender book of 278 pages? I couldn’t help but wonder if there is another book on her plate, maybe making this one nothing more than a lackluster and very light prequel.

Sadly, I think the big problem with Marja Mills’ book is that you can’t escape Marja Mills. She keeps taking center stage, rendering Harper Lee and her sister almost secondary characters that react to her own thoughts and experiences. It almost feels like something from a badly written TV show with a tame lead. Harper even is given a catchphrase, “Mercy.”

I think the most disappointing thing for me as a fan, if "The Mockingbird Next Door" is true, is accepting the fact that there will likely be no surprises from Harper Lee in the future. The only thing we can take comfort in is in the knowledge that after giving us such an amazing novel, Harper was able to live the life she wanted… in her own little world.

There are two new ways you can check out Scott's own writing. His novel "My Problem With Doors" was just released for the Kindle, and his book "A Jane Austen Daydream" is now an audiobook on Audible and iTunes. You can find out more information via his writing blog "The Musings and Artful Blunders of Scott D. Southard" at sdsouthard.com.