Wednesday, June 07, 2006

The Sense of a Life

When I found out about Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee I was very excited. After all is there anyone who has read To Kill a Mockingbird and hated it? And is there anyone who has read it and not wondered why Nelle Harper Lee has never published another book? Author Charles J. Shields had lots of questions. Instead of sitting around wondering like the rest of us, he decided to be the first to write a biography of Harper Lee. He tried to contact Lee but she refused any kind of communication. Shields resorted to interviewing over 600 people who know Lee as well as digging through the Truman Capote archives and and searching through interviews and other publications by and about Lee before she retired from public view. Even though the subject is still alive, Lee is 80, he had to write the book as though she were dead. Even then he was hindered as he had no access to all those letters and other bits and pieces of a life that are held close while one is still living. I've got page points marking spots all throughout the book that I want to tell you about, but as I am looking at them I realize most of what I'd be telling you is Lee's life story and I don't want to spoil the book for you by summing up her life. I'll just mention a few highlights that struck me instead. For one, I didn't know how autobiographical To Kill a Mockingbird is. Dill is based on Truman Capote. Atticus on Lee's father, A.C. Lee. Maycomb is based on Lee's hometown of Monroeville. The people of Maycomb are reflections of Lee's neighbors and other folks about town. What happened in Maycomb, however, did not happen in Monroeville. I was also surprised how much Harper Lee contributed to the writing of In Cold Blood. It sounds as though she should have been given credit on the cover as a co-author or at the very least, her contribution should have been mentioned in the book's acknowledgments. All she got was a mention in the dedication and it wasn't even dedicated solely to her. When I finished the book I thought how nice it would be to have Harper Lee as a neighbor. She is unconventional, sharp witted, polite and generous. She divides her time between New York and a home in Monroeville she shares with her sister Alice. When she is in Monroeville she spends much of her time reading. There are shelves of books in every room of the house. Shields quotes Alice Lee talking about her sister, " 'All she needs is a good bed, a bathroom and a typewriter...Books are the things she cares about.' " Wouldn't it be a treat, sitting on the porch of an afternoon, cup of coffee in hand, chatting with Nelle Harper Lee about books? Because in spite of her success, in spite of the wealth she has acquired because of her success, she is just plain folk, no pretentiousness, just a good person. Being a good person doesn't make for a dramatic and event-filled life. There is no trashing of hotel rooms, no telling people off, no charges of assaulting a journalist. But that's okay, because would you want the author of To Kill a Mockingbird to be anything besides a decent person? Is Mockingbird a detailed picking apart of a life with in depth psychological analysis? No. Mockingbird is a painting in broad brush strokes with shimmering highlights here and there. If you want to get into the mind of Harper Lee, you will be left disappointed by the book. If you want to get a sense of who she is, get the Lee side of her friendship with Truman Capote, and learn why she has not written another book and why she has retired from public life, then you will enjoy the book.