I’ve been putting off this double review for a while now, although I’m not quite sure why. I’ve been mentally mulling over what I would like to say here for a few months, but whenever I sit down to write something at the lair, it always ends up being about something other than this review. It’s not for lack of love for either book. In fact, I already own one and have added the other to my wish list as necessary to the Harper Lee portion of my library.
The reason that I wanted to review both of these books together is quite simple: If you fall into the camp of those who continue to doubt as to whether or not Harper Lee was, indeed, the author of Go Set a Watchman, then you need only read Marja Mills’s The Mockingbird Next Door as its instinctual companion piece.
I say this as a matter of logic. There are so many parallels between Mills’s recounting of stories and truths told to her by Harper Lee and her sister Alice Finch Lee, and what Lee wrote in the original manuscript that she ultimately would transform into To Kill a Mockingbird that I can only deduce that Go Set a Watchman either is clearly Lee’s work or Mills has helped to perpetuate one of the greatest literary hoaxes in modern history. And while I am quite jaded on the surface, it’s just protection for the fragile, squishy goo of trust inside me.
I deeply enjoyed Mills’s book on what it was like living next door to the Lee sisters and befriending both of them. It’s no secret that Harper Lee has lived a reclusive, mercurial life. She has little tolerance for sycophantic adoration or simple-mindedness. Mills portrays her as equal parts roughly hewn and Southern genteel. Some might find her to be abrasive, but Mills proves repeatedly that Harper Lee simply wants back from others what she feels is her obligation to give: honesty and forthrightness. And brilliance. Both Lee sisters were incredibly well-read, well-bred, and brimming with eloquence and intelligence.
Yes, there was controversy with this book when Lee pronounced it positively untrue and unapproved (and once more earning her standing as one of literature’s more mercurial players). However, sister Alice refuted those accusations, opening up speculation that the mercurial was perhaps becoming tinged with a bit of dementia. True enough, not long after the release of this book both Lee sisters ended up in separate nursing homes, no longer able to live on their own. Alice sadly passed away late last year. Harper continues to show signs of intellectual ferocity and engagement, but with increasing bouts of mental decline.
As for the “sequel” to To Kill a Mockingbird, I see so much of Harper Lee in the character of an adult Jean Louise “Scout” Finch as revealed by Mills’s book. There is no doubt in my mind that she wrote this book and that it slowly morphed into the seminal book we cherish so much still. To those who claim that this book has somehow ruined or tainted that first novel or the character of Atticus Finch, I say it’s okay. I view this as two sides, not of Atticus, but of Scout herself: the young girl from TKAM who sees only the hero her father is to her, versus the adult from GSAW who sees him finally and fully as what he has always been: human. A decent, complex, struggling, earnest, human. I think these are beautiful bookends to a character that goes from revered to flawed, but still essentially admirable. Atticus still is Atticus, and nothing can ever take away the heart and soul of this character.
Final Verdict: Again, I own Lee’s “latest” novel already, and I would love to own a copy of Mills’s work on the Lee sisters. Both are compelling in their own rights and worthy of revisiting.