Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee by Charles J Shields
4 out of 5 stars
It's been a little over a year since I read To Kill a Mockingbird and I have been meaning to read this biography of Harper Lee since then. It was recommended to me by my nonrelated-aunt :) and I'm glad I finally picked it up at the library the other day. Harper Lee is an intensely private person (honestly, before I reread TKAM last year, I didn't know she was still alive) and has refused to do most interviews or even talk about her book since the 70s. So obviously, she did not consent or assist in this biography at all. Taking that into context, I think Shields did a good job of protecting her privacy while still giving us a decent picture of her life and work.
I hadn't realized how much TKAM was based on her own family: Atticus Finch was almost an exact replica of her father, AC Lee, right down to his law degree and penchant for pocket watches. Her mother had a "nervous disorder" and was absent, physically and mentally, much of her childhood so Lee just wrote her out of the story completely. Big brother Jem was there along with next-door neighbor BFF Dill. Only her two sisters were missing from the book, maybe because they were so much older? Seems kind of odd, considering most of her hometown neighbors and friends are in the book as well.
Truman Capote was her real-life only and best friend; I knew next to nothing about him other than his name before this. Now I want to read more about him too. He was a character for sure. "It was the 1930s, the Great Depression [...] children came to school with no shoes [...] Truman in Hawaiian shirts, white duck shorts, blue socks, sandals, and Eton caps from the best department stores in Mobile and Montgomery, he looked, as one teacher expressed it, "like a bird of paradise among a flock of crows." The implied insult to the other children could not be ignored." Lee ended up protecting Capote a lot of the time in their younger years and they grew to be life-long friends. Shields did seem to be overly fixated on Lee and Capote's relationship in regards to Capote's book In Cold Blood though. I enjoyed those chapters greatly, so much that I want to read his book next, but I don't think every little decision that the 2 made was based on the other's approval. I do think it was rotten that Capote did not give Lee credit for her extensive help researching the book though.
It was so interesting to read how Lee got TKAM written and published. She had wonderful friends who supported her (literally) for a year so she could just sit and write, she was incredibly lucky in finding a publisher and agent that loved her and her work. She was not lucky in traffic tickets though, the same cop gave her 2 tickets in one day for jaywalking lol. (Reminded of The New Girl when Nick kept getting tickets!) Lee had no idea how popular TKAM would be, she just didn't want to be completely ripped apart by reviewers. It's incredible how humble she was and is still about a book that won the Pulitzer Prize a year after its publication and created a classic movie as well.
I think that's why people are so frustrated that she never published a second book. She worked on one for ages after TKAM, but it never came together apparently. No one knows why, except a statement from her sister that "just as Nelle was finishing the novel, a burglar broke into her apartment and stole the manuscript." We will just have to be satisfied with one perfect novel from her, I guess.