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Mockingbird Songs: My Friendship with Harper Lee

Review

Mockingbird Songs: My Friendship with Harper Lee

The final years of Harper Lee’s life were shrouded in mystery, tragedy, tumult and sadness. Nelle Harper Lee was the author of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, an iconic book read and loved by millions around the world. For decades, it would be her only book. Avoiding the limelight, Lee continued to live in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. She made rare public appearances, avoiding the national spotlight, but was a frequent letter writer to her fans and often attended ceremonies where young writers who had written about her novel were honored.

For decades after the publication of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD in 1960, readers fervently hoped that Lee would write another novel. Eventually they gave up hope, but in 2015, a year before her death, her attorney announced that a manuscript of a previous book had been discovered. GO SET A WATCHMAN was published to controversy. While it sold millions of copies, it also disappointed many of her admiring readers.

"This collection of letters and brief accompanying essays is touching and a joy to read. It reminds us of one of our most beloved writers in modern history and belongs right next to your copy of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD."

In addition to a few unauthorized biographies and two movies on Truman Capote where she was portrayed on screen, there have been some books written by people who had contacts with Lee late in her life. Chicago Tribune reporter Marja Mills actually lived next door to Lee and her sister, and wrote of her experience in THE MOCKINGBIRD NEXT DOOR, only to have the family disavow her work. MOCKINGBIRD SONGS is the recounting of a relationship that lasted 25 years and was carried on mostly through letters between Lee and Wayne Flynt, professor emeritus in the department of history at Auburn University.

It all started in 1992. Flynt had written an opinion column that appeared in Alabama newspapers. He observed that he had left Alabama in the 1960s after the terrorist bombing at Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, and vowed never to return to the state. After reading TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, however, he reconsidered. There were good people in his home state, and the novel reminded him of many he had encountered. Lee read the article and in October 1992 wrote to Flynt, “To learn that a man of your gifts, by faith in one novel, chose to make his life in Alabama…makes its author feel humble indeed.” This began decades of correspondence that would only end when Lee’s frail condition prevented letters. There were occasional in-person meetings, but the relationship basically existed on paper. In an era when we now communicate with Facebook posts, emails and tweets, it is refreshing and engaging to gain insight into two thoughtful people sharing their views on pen and paper.

Flynt is a wonderful writer in his own right, but it is Lee who is the star of this book. Her tart observations about current affairs are filled with extraordinary phrases and sly humor. In 2005, she wrote to Flynt and discussed the current state of Alabama politics: “I dread the advent of Roy Moore’s administration but it’s coming as sure as doomsday. What is wrong with us? Are you old enough to remember when people were less ignorant? I am.”

In one of Flynt’s last personal meetings with Lee, he discussed GO SET A WATCHMAN. Seeing her at her nursing home, he mentioned her new novel. She shocked him by asking, “What new novel? I don’t have any new novel.” Flynt was concerned that perhaps the stories of the book being a hoax were true. But Lee then smiled and said, “That’s not my new novel, that’s my old novel.”

This collection of letters and brief accompanying essays is touching and a joy to read. It reminds us of one of our most beloved writers in modern history and belongs right next to your copy of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.

Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on May 12, 2017

Mockingbird Songs: My Friendship with Harper Lee
by Wayne Flynt

  • Publication Date: May 2, 2017
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Harper
  • ISBN-10: 006266008X
  • ISBN-13: 9780062660084