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Bookmarks Issue: 
24-Sept-Oct-2006
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A Portrait of Harper Lee

A-MockingbirdNelle Harper Lee won the Pulitzer Prize for her first novel, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), and then never published another piece of writing (unless you count a letter just published in Oprah’s O magazine). As the popularity of her lone book grew, spurred by the movie version with Gregory Peck, the author retreated from the limelight to her home in Monroeville, Alabama, less a recluse than a woman determined to live a normal life. This first biography examines Lee’s childhood friendship with Truman Capote, the considerable role she played in writing Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966), and, of course, the process of writing her classic American novel. Shields also speculates why Lee never produced another masterpiece, much less a second novel.
Henry Holt. 352 pages. $25. ISBN: 080507919X

Minneapolis Star-Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"It’s a well-rounded portrait of a nonconformist tomboy, a Southerner, someone who seemed to know her own way—how to self-nurture and thrive in an artistic environment that allowed her to produce a monumental work of art." Ruth Moose

St. Petersburg Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The book is filled with sourced details about Lee’s family, her childhood, her advanced academic life, and the history of her hometown. But best of all, Shields manages to capture Lee’s personality: unconventional and independent, with a wicked sense of humor." Sharon L. Bond

USA Today 3.5 of 5 Stars
"In his well-meaning if often awkwardly written biography, Shields does not pry deeply into Lee’s personal life. If Lee has wrestled with any personal demons, Shields isn’t dishing." Deidre Donahue

Denver Post 3 of 5 Stars
"Shields raises more questions about Lee’s life than he provides answers, but that is not all bad. He makes the ghostly woman flesh and blood, so that readers can speculate on their own why her story turned out so unexpectedly." Steve Weinberg

Dallas Morning News 2.5 of 5 Stars
"You can’t help but wonder whether he secretly resents his subject, especially since her refusal to cooperate put him to so much extra trouble and limited the emotional resonance of his biography." Charles Ealy

Salon.com 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Though Shields can’t begin to answer the big questions about Lee’s personal life, his analysis of her novel’s inception and impact almost fills the gap, but even there, he’s neglected an important aspect of her artistry: a discussion of Scout, Lee’s 6-year-old narrator, as an icon of American girlhood." Margot Mifflin

Baltimore Sun 1 of 5 Stars
"What Shields fails to tell us about Lee—who refused his many attempts to interview her and urged her friends and confidants to refuse to talk to him as well—is manifold. This is less a true biography and more a work of speculation." Victoria A. Brownworth

Critical Summary

Charles J. Shields, who writes biographies for young adults, makes it clear with his subtitle that his book falls short of a full-scale biography. Since the 81-year-old Lee refused to aid Shields’s work, he resorted to the next best option: he acquired more than 600 interviews with Lee’s friends and associates as well as any correspondence he could. Many reviewers attribute the mixed success of the book to Lee’s publicity bubble, but a few critics fault the biographer’s imagination, and perhaps frustration, for making Mockingbird less than a pleasure to read. If he doesn’t adequately delve deeply into Lee’s personal life, at the very least, Mockingbird "lays a strong foundation for Lee scholarship, and turns up some marvelous ephemera" to tide scholars over (Salon).

The classic

To Kill a Mockingbird (1960):
Award Star Pulitzer Prize. Scout and Jem Finch come of age in a small, Depression-era Southern town as their father, Atticus, defends a black man accused of rape.