On assignment for the Chicago Tribune, Marja Mills met Harper "Nelle" Lee and her sister Alice Finch Lee in Monroeville, Ala., befriended them, and moved into the house next door for 18 months. The resulting book, The Mockingbird Next Door, was a hit, but a statement by Lee claimed that the book was not done cooperatively.
This week marks the biggest literary event in years -- the publication of Go Set a Watchman, the continuing story of Jean Louise ("Scout") and her father, the attorney Atticus Finch.
Marja Mills will assess the value of the new book, give her thoughts on the controversial development of Atticus, and tell us about her recent visit to Monroeville, Ala.
Read an excerpt of Go Set a Watchman below, and visit PBS’ American Masters for more on Harper Lee, her novels and documentaries about Lee.
Read an excerpt of The Mockingbird Next Door.
The Mockingbird Next Door
The next morning, I stepped out of my motel room and into the furnace of Monroeville in August. The Best Western is on Highway 21, which becomes Alabama Avenue. To reach the courthouse, according to the clerk at the motel, all we had to do was follow the road about five miles. It ended right at the town square. We passed an unremarkable stretch of auto parts places and assorted businesses. Next we came upon the Monroe County Hospital, up a short, steep hill to our left, then a strip mall with a Winn-Dixie supermarket, a Rite Aid, and a dollar store. We passed Radley’s Deli, a weathered gray building, named for Boo Radley. We drove the generic stretch you find anyplace in America—McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC—before we spotted the low-slung Vanity Fair building. Pete’s Texaco, a classic, cluttered old gas station, looked like it hadn’t changed much over the decades. On the corner where Alabama Avenue crosses Claiborne Street was Lee Motor Company, also no relation to the author. I had read she didn’t like the mural of a giant mockingbird painted on the side of the brick building. Across the street, on another mural, Scout and Jem stand by the neighborhood tree. The snug 1930s post office anchors the southeast side of the town square. We parked in one of the diagonal parking spaces across the street, in front of the Old Courthouse. Adjacent to it is what everyone calls the new courthouse. It was built in 1963.
Seen from the north, Lee wrote, the Maycomb County courthouse was early Victorian and looked all right. “From the other side, however, Greek revival columns clashed with a big nineteenth-century clock tower housing a rusty unreliable instrument, a view indicating a people determined to preserve every physical scrap of the past.” Monroeville once had such an unreliable instrument, a problem addressed with a modern solution. Now when the bell tolls the hours, it is a recording that rings out from the clock tower.
We made our way up a short flight of steps and through the pair of tall, heavy doors that welcome Mockingbird tourists. The courthouse is a magnet for people from around the country looking for a connection to the novel and the movie, those seeking a glimpse of the real world that inspired that fictional one. A small gift shop sold To Kill a Mockingbird T-shirts and key chains, and posters of the town’s annual production of the play.
Terrence and I ducked our heads into the large courtroom that served as the basis for the one in the movie. It was large, with a curving balcony, painted white, along the second floor, and tall windows overlooking the square. Terrence began taking pictures and I climbed slightly uneven wooden steps to the stuffy second floor.
Reprinted and published with permission.