Not ready for her close-up
Charles J. Shields, a journalist and author of nonfiction for young readers, blends techniques of fiction and creative investigative reporting in Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee. No prior biography of Lee exists, and Shields has written a largely imagined rendering of the reclusive, famously feisty author's life. Lee, now 79 and living in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, declined to speak with Shields or verify his research. The result is a book that, in Shields' words, "aims to capture a life but is not a conventional biography." Which begs the question: Do we really need to know Ms. Lee's innermost thoughts, isn't it enough that she wrote a worthy book that continues to inspire?
Shields' narrative earns A's for effort and for his evocation of the Depression-era South. Also, he clearly respects the importance of To Kill a Mockingbird, mining its pages for clues to Lee's life. Less effective, however, is his weave of fact and conjuration (derived from a mix of tangential research), which makes the text threadbare in spots as it attempts to authoritatively explore the vista of Lee's family and upbringing, friendships, education, writing process and present life. And, oddly, Shields' book closes with a misplaced thematic defamation of Lee's carefully wrought novel. Mockingbird has three sturdy chapters, though, that lend revealing biographical subtext. These chronicle the diligent shepherding of Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by her agent and editor; her lifelong friendship with the flamboyant Truman Capote; and her struggle to write a second novel. About this literary silence, Shields reports that Lee is self-forgiving: "People who have made peace with themselves are the people I most admire in the world."
Alison Hood is a writer in San Rafael, California.