I didn’t so much choose Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee as it chose me. Last November, I visited family in Texas and my grandmother gave me the hardcover to borrow. In late March, she started making noises about wanting it back, so I figured I had to read it (or give it back without reading it and disappoint her). What follows is my letter to her, not exactly a review as it is a collection of thoughts.
08 April 2011, late evening
I haven’t read To Kill a Mockingbird in a long time, probably since high school, when it was assigned reading in English class. I don’t think I realized then—or if I did, I don’t remember now—that Harper Lee is a woman. (I don’t think it mattered one way or the other back then, either; it was required reading, which automatically made it evil no matter its content.) I don’t even remember what we were talking about when you pulled Mockingbird, by Charles J. Shields, off the shelf to have me read a few pages. I was interested (I always am, with interesting characters), and you graciously let me borrow it. Well, I admit: I took it home where it was promptly buried under other books, to do lists, and life. Then, Dad told me recently that you’d made noises about getting it back, so I endeavored to read it before Bunny came out to visit everyone in Texas so that when she did, she could bring it to you. I still had life going on, of course, but I managed to read the entire thing during lunch breaks at work and while waiting for classes to begin or for the bus to arrive.
Some thoughts. I read Mom, Dad, and Bunny sections of the book—the parts I liked, of course—beginning with the questions Shields was often asked while he was researching his reclusive subject. These are, in order: “Is Harper Lee still alive?” (yes), “Is she married?” (no), which is shortly followed by “Is she gay?” (“not married” should not be equated with “being gay”), and finally “Why didn’t she write another novel?” (it’s complicated). When I read that section in the Introduction to Dad, he said with surprise, “My first thought after ‘Is she married?’ was more like, ‘Has she ever been married?'” (The answer to that question is also no, though it says something about Dad’s frame of reference as opposed to other questioners’. It’s like saying “What’s the opposite of man?” wherein the answer could be both woman and boy, among other things. How a person thinks is, of course, always interesting.)
I also read aloud the section about Nelle hunting for whitetail deer one Christmas (p. 188-189) because the tribal name part reminded me of the “Indian names” we’ve given each other here in my house. (I, for example, am Sleeping Bear; Johnny is Little Bro; and Bunny is She Who Would Argue With a Rock—all fitting names among us. Bunny likes hers the least, of course, but she usually takes our teasing with good humor.) The name Sleeps Late for Nelle, given what I’d learned of her up to that point, seemed appropriate, but after having finished the book, I’d say Refuses Every Interview (which I just made up) is more lasting.
I read both Mom and Dad sections of the part about Gregory Peck, namely the beginning of that chapter (p. 203-204) and the part about his needing money (because he didn’t have any cash with him) to buy a Dr. Pepper and then being carded when he tried to withdraw money from the bank (p. 207). I learned more about the movie than I knew before (something else I haven’t seen in a long time), and was please by how well the producer and director treated Nelle’s story—they actually seemed to respect it rather than just try to make money from it, which was a pleasant surprise compared to what I’m used to when it comes to Hollywood adaptations of great novels.
I wanted to really know why Nelle never wrote another book (or rather, why she never had another published, since it’s clear she was writing one and began another), but since she’s so reclusive and her family also declines to give interviews, it’s apparent that we’ll have to wait until she’s passed on to see any of her further work, if she saves any of it at all. I feel like Shields implied in the Introduction that he was going to explain why, and I’m not sure he exactly lived up to that goal in “The Second Novel” (ch. 9). It seems to boil down to Nelle saying, “I don’t have enough peace and quiet” and/or “Too much time has passed” and/or “I did it right the first time” and/or some combination thereof… I guess all those reasons are true, and we may never know one way or the other. And the novel is still in print, more than fifty years later, so it’s not like she needs to write another book to get paid to put food on the table or something.
When you flip through, you’ll notice I wrote minimal notes in the margins and underlined some passages that stood out to me, since I remember your saying it was all right to do so. (If it wasn’t, I’m very sorry! I’ll make sure in the future.) Maybe the next time I visit we can crack open Mockingbird and have a miniature book club!
Thanks for letting me borrow it (and sorry for returning it so slowly).
I identify with Shields’s portrait of Nelle Lee in that I am also a writer, and I can see a lot of myself in the young woman struggling to write in New York and when she told one reporter, “I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers but, at the same time, I sort of hoped someone would like it enough to give me encouragement” I underlined it and said to myself, “Yes; this!”
I also agree with this review.