Thursday, February 5, 2015

Killing The Mockingbird

I can't remember what year it was that I first read To Kill A Mockingbird. I remember discussing it with my 10th grade English teacher, but my husband, who sat beside me (Catholic schools always seat you alphabetically) says that it wasn't required reading for that class, because he himself has never read it. (For the record, he's also never read the Harry Potter books, which messes him up all the time in Trivia Crack, no more than he deserves.) Anyway, I loved To Kill a Mockingbird. I remember how it resonated with me that Scout didn't realize she loved to read until her teacher forbade it. "One does not love breathing." I remember the rank injustice of the trial, and the hams piled on Atticus's kitchen table afterward, and I remember that, like Scout, I wasn't afraid of Boo Radley at all.

It's not a coincidence I have a cat named Scout.

So when I heard on Tuesday that a sequel to Mockingbird was being published, I felt an initial happiness. And then, on reflection, skepticism. Further on, sorrow. I'll explain.

A few months ago I read The Mockingbird Next Door, Marja Mills's account of her relationship with the elderly Nelle Harper Lee, and her even older sister, Alice. It's a gentle book, not an expose; what I call a "library book," in that I'm content to have borrowed it rather than bought it. Nelle (Harper Lee's real first name) was eccentric, and a recluse. Marja treats her with respect.

Right after the book came out, Harper Lee purported to release a statement saying that she never authorized the book. Honestly, reading the book, it's hard to believe this, and I wasn't surprised to learn that shortly thereafter, Alice Lee released a statement saying, yes she did, Harper and Alice were both in support of the book.

It gets murkier. During the time that Marja Mills knew Harper and Alice, and even lived in the house beside theirs for a time, both sisters were in good health. Harper was in her 80s, and Alice, still practicing law, in her 90s. While Marja Mills was writing the book Harper Lee had a stroke. She was left mostly deaf, mostly blind, in a wheelchair, and not completely mentally capable. Apparently a woman named Tonya Carter, who succeeded Alice in her law practice, wrote the statement about not authorizing the Mills book, and Harper Lee signed it. Harper Lee, Alice said, would sign anything put in front of her.

I didn't hear until this week about further bamboozling. When Harper Lee's longtime agent died, her new agent somehow had her sign over the copyright to Mockingbird to him. It took a lawsuit to undo it.

Alice Lee had always protected her sister and helped keep her out of the public eye, which was, from everything ever written, exactly how Harper Lee wanted it.

In the past few years, which Alice also spent in a nursing home, Tonya Carter has managed to forbid most of Harper Lee's old friends from visiting her.

Alice Lee died three months ago. Now, suddenly, there's a new Harper Lee manuscript. I believe she wrote it. The story is that she wrote it before Mockingbird, then went back and wrote Mockingbird as a prequel. That all makes sense. What doesn't make sense is the letter supposedly written by Harper Lee, introducing the new work:

“After much thought and hesitation I shared it with a handful of people I trust and was pleased to hear that they considered it worthy of publication,” Lee says in the statement. “I am humbled and amazed that this will now be published after all these years.”

"Humbled and amazed," doesn't sound much like Harper Lee. She surely knew she had written another book; one assumes that she herself deemed it not worthy of publication. And who are these handful of people she shared it with? The letter, like the others, bears her signature, but nothing of her nature.

I'll probably still read the book. I'll probably find it disappointing. But more disappointing is the thought of this fiercely private woman being manipulated by those still with her. I'm not happy about this at all.