Friday, October 21, 2011

Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee

Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee
My Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

First of all, Charles J. Shields deserves kudos for tackling such an elusive subject. This is not an authorized biography of Nelle Harper Lee, because of course Lee would not respond to any of Shields' many requests for interviews or information.

He admits in his introduction that he had to rely heavily on the internet, library archives, and unorthodox methods (such as pretending to be one of Lee's college alums and obtaining a mailing list of her classmates). Consequently, I found myself pondering at some of his editorial choices and questioning why he included some of what he did. At times, it seemed like filler. As a result, as far as biographies go, I've read better.

Given the fact that we know so little about Lee's life and motivations, however, this book is a great addition to the Mockingbird canon. Shields, a former English teacher, writes extensively about Lee's friendship with Truman Capote and her childhood in Alabama. The only Capote work I've read is In Cold Blood, although I wasn't aware at the time that Lee assisted him so extensively in the research and writing (and did not receive any credit...apparently because he was envious of Lee's award of the Pulitzer prize).

Shields speculates about Lee's strained relationship with her mother and the fact that she never wrote another book. Again, he must rely on word of mouth, news articles and rare interviews, and guesswork. As a result, I found myself questioning the accuracy. I thought it was tacky and disrespectful that he revealed the name of the Monroeville, Alabama, restaurant where Lee and her sister Alice enjoy eating on a regular basis. We all know she is a woman who values her privacy.

In the end, this book is a fond remembrance of Lee--clearly, Shields has immense respect for his subject. She seemed exceedingly uncomfortable with the trappings of fame and the expectations of writers (to continue to produce). But Shields concludes that Lee has come to peace with her life. Soon after To Kill a Mockingbird was published, Lee wrote to friends, "People who have made peace with themselves are the people I admire most in the world." Shields, too, had to make peace with the lack of his personal insight about Lee, because of her reclusiveness.

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