Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee by Charles Shields is an unauthorized biography. After writing the proposal for this book and finding a publisher, he wrote and asked Harper Lee very politely but was denied an interview. In fact he was told that she would rather he not write this book at all. Charles Shields did not give up easily and the research for the book included over 600 interviews with people who knew Ms. Lee. I found the book entertaining and it contained details of Nelle’s life that I had not yet read or heard. But as with all unauthorized biographies, I can’t help wondering how accurate the story is.  I read this book solely for entertainment but I  will keep it on my shelf as a reference in case it proves to be true. There is a nice index in the back for convenience.

Almost half way through the book it occurred to me that it was just as much about Capote as it was about Lee, the first half is anyway. There is much said about their working together on In Cold Blood. I did learn more details about the family that was murdered in Kansas, the Clutters. Truman Capote’s book painted them to be a hard working, milk drinking, God fearing farm family that was savagely murdered in their home one nice quiet evening. That may have been only about half right. I do believe they were savagely murdered but the family picture was not quite as idyllic as we were led to believe in Truman’s book. The Clutters were wealthy and known by the community to be a bit peculiar. The father was a control freak (to put it mildly). The mother was suffering from some sort of major depressive disorder. The family covered it as best as they could but it had affected the family dynamic. This was evident in the actions of the two surviving daughters. When they were told of the loss of their family they insisted on going in the house, breaking through the law enforcement officers working there. Then for several hours they were quite busy dividing up the contents of the house. Before they left Shields says they spent about an hour playing the piano and singing. Then at the funeral they were practically gleeful. The very next week one of the daughters held her wedding that had been planned before the murders occurred. Even though it was only days after burying their mother, father, little sister and brother, family friends showed up for the wedding out of loyalty to the family but there must have been lots of forced smiles and tension. A very strange story indeed and the notes Harper Lee made while working with Truman in Kansas were instrumental in painting the story found in In Cold Blood.

I have been a fan of To Kill a Mockingbird (both the book and the movie) for years but I have not read more than a paragraph biography of the author until now. From the movies (Capote and Infamous) I knew of her friendship with Truman Capote but I did not know much else. My usual practice is to read the book first and then see the movie. Several years passed between the time I read To  Kill a Mockingbird and first saw the movie and I remember going back to the book to check myself. The movie was the same story yet different. Now I realize why. Gregory Peck supposedly had a rather strong influence on what the movie  was to be about and for him the story was about Atticus Finch. I found the tale of Mr. Peck sneaking into town and attending an evening service at the Methodist church where A.C. Lee and family attended to be amusing and believable.  He worked diligently at his craft and that is one of the reasons the movie was so powerful I do believe.

The author of one of the most read novels in recent American history is rather reclusive. I would have preferred to read an autobiography or at least an authorized biography but Nelle Harper Lee has yet to publish anything else, not even the long awaited second novel. Shields repeats a rather intimate and revealing family incident that Gerald Clarke wrote about in Capote: A Biography. The Lee family has vehemently denied it and it seems rather disrespectful to include it again in this book. Especially since it is hearsay and has not been corroborated. Otherwise, the book is entertaining and helps scratch an itch for more information on this Pulitzer Prize winning author. After turning the final page I had to wonder if Nelle Harper Lee has read this book and if so what she thinks.

J. Hernandez blogs at Interested readers can email her at



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