Charles Shields wrote this biography without the cooperation of Harper Lee. He notes that she is an intensely private person. He felt it important to tell her story while people who know her are still alive.
He begins with her childhood in depression era Monroeville, Alabama. This is the inspiration for the fictional town of Maycomb in "To Kill a Mockingbird." The parallels between the actual place, events, and people and the fictional are very apparent. He describes her parents' background. Her father A.C. the model for Atticus Finch was a man of high principles whose attitude about racial equality developed over time. Her mother suffered from what the family called a "nervous disorder" possibly bipolar disease, and was emotionally distant from Harper Lee.
Lee's relationship with Truman Capote is thoroughly explored. The two grew up together, and he is the model for Dill in "To Kill a Mockingbird." Lee assisted him with research and interviews for his book "In Cold Blood," but due to his envy of Lee's success, did not give her credit.
Shields follows her writing career. She decided to quit law school, and go to NYC to write, greatly disappointing her father. She scraped along barely getting by much less finding adequate time to write until her friends Michael and Joy Brown loaned her money to write full time for a year. She became very close to her agents, Maurice Crain for literary, Annie Laurie Williams for the movie screen. They were instrumental in helpin Lee develop her manuscript.
The years after the great success of the book and movie are discussed. It was Lee's intention to write another book, but the demands of being a Pulitzer Prize winning author, and the needs of her family kept interfering. The few short stories and magazine articles she did write did not match the quality of her first book, and seemed to repeat the same elements. Lee finally decided to let it go.
She never married, and lives with her older sister Alice, a lawyer. Both women are very involved in the Monroeville, Alabama community. Lee has maintained an apartment in NYC throughout her adult life.
This report prepared by Susan Coffey