A determined but ultimately sketchy summary of the life of Lee, who shuns publicity and avoids biographers.
Nelle Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) remains one of the most frequently taught novels in American high schools, and its author remains an impossible bird to lime. For his efforts, which consumed several years, Shields (known principally for his YA titles) has come away with only a few feathers. Virtually all of this biography deals with the years leading up to Lee’s Mockingbird (childhood and college and law school) and with its immediate aftermath (the sales, the celebrity, the Pulitzer, the movie). Much of what the author provides for the ensuing 40 years are anecdote and rumor and reports of rare sightings. There are many pages about Lee’s collaboration with Truman Capote on In Cold Blood (confirming much of the detail in the film Capote), with some attention to Capote’s jealousy of Lee’s success and his petty failure to acknowledge the great contributions she made (Shields examined her capacious notes among Capote’s papers). Shields has read every piece published about Lee, every interview she granted (some he reproduces at length), but because Lee refused to cooperate (and told her friends to be silent), Shields cannot answer the most fundamental questions that readers and fans have: Why has Harper Lee never published another book? Has she been writing but just not publishing? Lee’s mind and heart likewise remain enigmatic. Lee’s Cerberus is her older sister Alice (now in her mid-90s), who said years ago that a burglar stole Lee’s nearly completed manuscript of her second novel (or, perhaps, a dog ate it). And Lee abandoned a true-crime book that she researched for years. Shields’s prose is generally unremarkable—sometimes silly (“The wind blew back her short chestnut hair. . . .”) and clichéd.
Proof that the aging avian continues to elude and frustrate pursuers.