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Harper Lee wrote only one, but what a book it was

Her decision to shun the limelight creates a challenge for would-be biographers.

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In an era of celebrity, when novelists scrap for any smidgen of publicity, Harper Lee is an enigma. On the scale of reclusiveness, she ranks with J.D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon. Furthermore, Lee is at the center of a mystery inapplicable to Salinger and Pynchon: Why, after achieving fame with her first novel, did she fail to ever publish another book? It's a question Charles Shields never quite answers in his new biography Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee.

When "To Kill a Mockingbird" became one of the best-known novels of all time 45 years ago, Lee became an unlikely celebrity. In her mid-30s, from rural Monroeville, Ala., Lee had moved to New York City a decade earlier despite the disapproval of her lawyer father and his law partner, Harper's eldest sister, Alice.

Harper Lee knew, just knew, she could write a publishable novel. Supported partly by family money and partly by wages earned outside the publishing world, Lee completed her manuscript: a novel about a racially charged rape case, about the companionship of children, about suspicion and trust. Assisted by a talented literary agent and a talented editor, Lee revised the manuscript into something memorable. The transformation of the novel into a movie starring Gregory Peck spread Lee's renown and increased the pressure on her to publish a second novel. That never happened.

An undertaking that intimidated many

This year, Lee turns 80 years old. Her fame will never die. But because she is a semirecluse and because her failure to publish again has turned her life into a mystery, a biography about her seemed way too challenging to most writers.

Shields, a former schoolteacher who used "To Kill a Mockingbird" in his classroom, believes it is timeless in part "because its lessons of human dignity and respect for others remain fundamental and universal."

Introducing the novel to high school freshmen is good timing, Shields says, "because students at that age are crossing the bridge from childhood to young adulthood, as the young characters in Lee's novel are. In-class discussions of the novel tend to be lively, and assigned essays are weighty with insights and opinions. It's a very rich text to teach."

For those who have never read the novel or have forgotten the details, Shields provides a superb summary.

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