Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee.
Mockingbird was written by an English teacher who wanted to answer his students’ questions about Harper Lee, namely why had she never written another book, and where was she now? Given that I have asked myself these two questions over the years, this biography appealed to me immensely.
It should be noted that Harper Lee has shunned interviews for years, so this book was written without her help, input or fact-checking. Instead, Shields interviewed numerous people who knew her and did extensive research- and we should really be grateful these perspectives were captured before these people passed on. Wisely, given his limitations, Shields is minimal on speculation and does not try to recreate a day-by-day biography. Instead, he breaks this work down into chapters regarding significant eras in Lee’s life, and doesn’t get too hung up on the details (was it a Tuesday? 3 p.m. or 4?). The book is quite readable, perhaps because Shields is not a historian by trade, but an English teacher writing on a subject he himself is quite interested in.
I found Mockingbird to be illuminating, especially as I’ve read biographies of Capote, and enjoyed seeing how each of the different works detailed the friendship between Harper Lee and Truman Capote. And while we might never fully know why Harper Lee did not publish a second novel- at least from her perspective- I feel a lot closer to that answer after this book.
Given the work that she did on In Cold Blood, she should have gotten billing as co-author, and I think it would be an interesting idea for a book to look at how working on that story took so much out of two great authors and changed their writing careers.
Read it if you’re at all interested in To Kill a Mockingbird or Harper Lee- it won’t take you long, and the rewards are enough, in the same way that Harper Lee has done enough, and we need to stop wondering why she didn’t do more.