"Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee"
(Reviewed by Guy Savage DEC 22, 2007)
"Writing is, in a way, a contest of knowing, of seeing the dream, of getting there, and of achieving what you set out to do. The simplest way to reach this goal is to simply say what you mean as clearly and precisely as you know how."
To Kill a Mockingbird is the sole novel written by Harper Lee, and today, decades later, it is considered one of the greatest books produced by an American writer in modern times. Anyone who writes one great novel and then fades into the background becomes something of an enigma, and this is definitely true of Harper Lee—a small town girl who managed to take the literary world by storm. Harper Lee is not an easy subject for a biographer. Currently living in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama she declines all interviews, and according to author Charles J. Shields, she urged those she knew not to cooperate with the creation of this biography. But undeterred, Shields completed his book—without the support of his reluctant subject. In the introduction, Shields states that he “tried to balance her desire for privacy with the desire of her millions of readers who have long hoped for a respectful, informative view of this rarely seen writer.” Shields succeeds admirably, and the result really is a marvelous examination of a most fascinating author. Shields tackles the intriguing questions that remain about Harper Lee: why did she never write a second book? Is there any truth to the rumor that lifelong friend, Truman Capote helped write To Kill a Mockingbird? Just how much did Harper Lee contribute to Truman Capote’s bestseller In Cold Blood? And lastly, Shields addresses the question, whatever happened to Harper Lee?
In more than over 600 interviews, Shields pieces together a portrait of a fascinating woman. One of four siblings, Nelle Harper Lee grew up next door to Truman Capote. Drawn together for various reasons, the two children established a close friendship that continued for many years and eventually grew into a collaboration on Truman Capote’s book In Cold Blood. Lee was slated for a legal career and a future in her father’s law firm, but she dropped out of law school, and against family approval, she headed for New York, working menial jobs during the day and determined to write her novel by night.
Shields charts Lee’s college years, and her move to New York, mapping Harper Lee’s years of struggle—along with her patient determination to write and rewrite until she was satisfied with the results. It took many years of hard work to produce To Kill a Mockingbird, but one of the most interesting parts of the biography covers Lee’s collaboration with Capote and their time spent investigating the murder of the Clutter family in Kansas by two drifters looking for hordes of cash. Shields details Lee’s immense and significant contribution to In Cold Blood noting that she received no acknowledgment from Capote for her contribution—his gratitude was limited to a mention in the book’s dedication.
As Lee’s star rose, and Capote became mired in alcoholism and bitter comments, rumors began to circulate that Capote practically ghostwrote Lee’s book. These rumors unfortunately appear to be fed by Capote himself, who assumed a position of patronage towards Lee. But the fact that Lee never wrote another book also lends itself to the idea that Lee was a one-shot wonder and that perhaps Capote did indeed help with the book. Shields most successfully eviscerates such nonsense and effectively details Lee’s struggles to produce the book, surrounded by a most supportive network of professionals who believed in her talent.
Shields also details the efforts Lee generated towards a second, never completed work on the subject of the mysterious Reverend Maxwell—a man who "lost" an amazing number of close relatives from unfortunate and accidental deaths, and yet benefited from their insurance policies. Unfortunately, this second book from Lee, a work of non-fiction, slated to be along the lines of In Cold Blood never materialized.
Shields most effectively answers all questions about the elusive Harper Lee. Most importantly in this satisfying biography, Shields creates a portrait of an intriguing, sensitive woman—not so much a recluse—but an artist who simply decided to lead a normal life out of the spotlight and back in her beloved hometown of Monroeville.
- Amazon readers rating: from 5 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee (April 2007)
For younger readers:
- I am Scout: A Biography of Harper Lee (April 2008)
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- Official website for Charles J. Shields
- IdentityTheory.com interview with Charles J. Shields
- BookReporter.com review of Mockingbird
- The New York Times review of Mockingbird
- Houston Chronicle review of Mockingbird
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About the Author:
Charles J. Shields has a B.A. in English and an M.A. in American history from the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, where he was a James Scholar. After 20 years of teaching, Shields left the profession as English
department chair at a high school of 2,800 in suburban Chicago to become a writer of nonfiction books for young people.
He lives in central Virginia with his wife, Guadalupe.