Janie Reviews “The Mockingbird Next Door” by Marja Mills

When you think of To Kill a Mockingbird, you might imagine yourself sitting in a classroom as a 15-year-old, scribbling notes on a piece of paper about the importance of Atticus Finch. For other readers, you might recall picking it up at a bookstore on a whim and immediately delving into the old, small town setting of Maycomb. Some people read the book over and over and find themselves taping the spine back together to keep pages intact. One thing is always certain; To Kill a Mockingbird holds a special place for everyone that picks it up. To Kill a Mockingbird is unique to the literary world, not only because of its excellence, but also for its mysterious author, Harper Lee. Curious readers are drawn to Lee and her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama (the small town on which Maycomb is based), but little is known about the woman who penned one of the greatest and most loved American novels. That is, until Marja Mills knocked on Alice Lee’s front door in Monroeville on a hot summer day and was welcomed inside.

This is where The Mockingbird Next Door begins, and for anyone who has ever read Harper Lee’s novel, Mills’ new book is the perfect literary companion. It tells the true, personal account of the journey Mills took to Monroeville for the Chicago Tribune in 2001. She was assigned to cover the Chicago Public Library’s One Book, One Chicago program, which chose To Kill a Mockingbird as its first selection. Next thing she knows, she is on a plane to Atlanta and renting a car to drive the back roads to Monroeville, deep in south Alabama. Hoping to chat with the locals, Mills ultimately finds herself living right next door to the literary icon and her lawyer sister, Alice.

The Mockingbird Next Door draws readers in with its relation to the famous writer, who prefers to be called Nelle by her friends, but it’s the warm embrace the book gives you as you’re invited with Mills to sit down and chat with Nelle and Alice in their living room, go for drives to feed the local ducks, eat at Radley’s, and listen to the “grey-haired posse” share stories of Monroeville’s past that keeps you reading. While Nelle is certainly the focus, Mills doesn’t shy away from getting to know each individual she meets while living next door to the Lees. A favorite figure from the book is instantly Nelle’s sister, Alice, who is described by everyone as “Atticus in a skirt.” As a lawyer in Monroeville, Alice has made a name for herself, aside from her little sister’s celebrity status, and is such a fascinating figure in her own right that readers will yearn for more. When we first meet Alice, she is surrounded by books of all kinds from around the world and poignantly remarks that “This, is how I’ve traveled,” as she thoughtfully admires the books that have allowed her to study every corner of the globe. Alice’s knowledge of the world and passion for exploring through books is evident, but she is also the treasure trove of family history. Her stories of Lee family life, of following in the footsteps of her lawyer father, and of growing up in Monroeville each bring a sense of nostalgia to Mills’ story that show exactly what the Lee sisters believe: no amount of fiction can match the fascinating histories in real peoples’ lives.

Readers will enjoy connections Mills draws between the To Kill a Mockingbird Maycomb and the real town of Monroeville. She describes reading and rereading her copy of the 1960 novel making notes in the margins while learning about her new surroundings and friends. While reading The Mockingbird Next Door, it is hard to keep from going back to your own copy of Lee’s novel for a reminder of just how accurate the descriptions of Maycomb are to growing up in the South. While Mills gets closer to the Lee family than any reporter has done before, she is never reporting in the classical sense, nor does the book read as a biography. Instead, The Mockingbird Next Door immerses itself in a culture with great admiration and respect for its inhabitants, celebrity status aside. The beauty of the book is that Mills forms a lasting, true friendship with Nelle and Alice—there is never any pushing to get the glorious details she has included in her book, and everything is shared openly. The Mockingbird Next Door flows as naturally as the friendship that formed between the women, and it is always evident that there is a sincere care to not only share Nelle’s stories, but to carefully protect the privacy she desires. Whether you’ve read To Kill a Mockingbird once or a hundred times, The Mockingbird Next Door is an unforgettable experience every reader is sure to enjoy.

And don’t forget the upcoming Mockingbird Tribute! Wednesday, July 23 at 7:00 PM, at the beautiful, historic Alabama Theatre in Birmingham, Alabama, you have the opportunity to attend the literary event of the decade. For $35, which includes all taxes, you will not only receive a signed copy of The Mockingbird Next Door, but you will meet Marja Mills and hear even more about her new book and Harper Lee, as well as see exclusive, never before seen video on the big screen of Kathryn Tucker Windham telling her own Harper Lee stories. To top it all off, every ticket comes with an entry in the drawing of a 50th Anniversary Edition of To Kill a Mockingbird with a bookplate signed by Harper Lee! How could you possibly miss such a fabulous occasion? All seats are reserved, so hurry down to The Alabama Booksmith today to purchase tickets, or give us a call! We’ll see you there!

~ Janie


1 Comment

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One response to “Janie Reviews “The Mockingbird Next Door” by Marja Mills

  1. I needed to thank you for this good read!! I absolutely enjoyed every little bit of it.
    I’ve got you book-marked to look at new stuff you post…

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