Charles J. Shields






Henry Holt and Co., May 2006
Reviewed by Susan Conatser

Harper Lee is known and loved for writing the Pulitzer Prize winner, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. Published in 1960, it has reportedly sold over 30 million copies. The author has never written another novel, and at eighty years of age, she lives in seclusion in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. She has refused all requests for interviews since the mid-60's. It is the mystery surrounding this fascinating writer that prompted this unauthorized biography.

Author Charles J. Shields has constructed a portrait of Nelle Harper Lee from the anecdotes of friends willing to talk and articles and papers connected to her. He begins with her childhood in Alabama where she grew up with playmate Truman Capote. Capote was her inspiration for the character of Dill Harris in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. Shields also explores tales of her father, A.C.Lee, a southern lawyer, on which the character Atticus Finch was based.

MOCKINGBIRD follows Lee to New York City and chronicles her time as research assistant for Capote in Holcomb, Kansas. Capote and Lee investigated the violent murder of the Clutter family and the eventual trial of Hickock and Smith. The brutal murders were the basis for Capote's true crime novel, IN COLD BLOOD. It is fascinating to note that Lee and Capote's friendship and writing careers brought them together to work on a chilling murder case, comparable to the characters of Scout and Dill whose lives were marked by a sensational trial. The prophetic quality in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is truly ironic.

Shields also puts Lee's work and its racially controversial story in the context of the times. Just one year after the book's release, the Freedom Riders left Washington D.C. on their famous civil rights trip through the South. The news that TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD would be made into a motion picture starring Gregory Peck, and the celebrity of winning the Pulitzer Prize award, thrust this reserved woman into the limelight. The death of her father soon followed. It is not difficult to imagine how the pressure of all these events may have impacted her life.

While Shields explores long pondered questions about Harper Lee, such as why Lee has never married, rumors that Capote wrote or rewrote TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, why she never wrote another book and why she no longer grants interviews--there are few concrete answers. His conclusions, however, are insightful and well-researched and may well be accurate. Shield's mellow writing style and the organization of information based upon known facts make this a marvelous and interesting biography. Shields claims of creating a portrait of Harper Lee seems a bit overstated. No question he has chosen a fascinating subject, but Harper Lee herself remains an elusive enigma.

June 2006

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