“Tru & Nelle: A Novel”
Author: G. Neri
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Price: $16.99 (Hardcover)
With all the recent fuss over the publication of “Go Set a Watchman” and the legal feuding in Monroeville, one can understand why this book was produced. There is interest in the subject.
Neri, the author of six previous books for children and teens, says of his work, “I'm like a mash-up DJ of a writer: I sample real life and re-mix it into story.”
“Tru and Nelle” is a true hybrid, the plot a blend of biography and imagination but still a novel. As in their real lives, Truman, 6, and Nelle, 7, become friends and have adventures to combat the tedium of Monroeville, acknowledged as the most boring place in the universe.
All the characters are named after real people—Nelle Harper Lee, Truman Capote, A. C. Lee, Nelle’s dad, and Truman’s cousins, the Carters: Jennings, kindly Sook with her dropsy medicine who nurtures Truman with a pure and simple love, tough Jenny, Callie and Bud. The setting is Monroeville in the 30’s when Truman was left there by his mother Lillie Mae and father Arch, at the Carter home and around town: the courthouse square, the drugstore, the schoolyard, the swimming hole at Hatter’s Mill.
They both love words, testing each other’s vocabulary from a Webster’s Dictionary with 48,000 entries. Avid readers, they invent games based on their reading, pretending to be pirates, Indians, all the regular stuff. Letting their imaginations run free, they invent stories for their own amusement. After A. C. gives them a typewriter, they get their stories down on paper.
At one point Nelle says Truman is the creative one, but Truman responds “‘You’re a story-teller too, Nelle, just like me.’” He goes on: “‘You’re the star of my play, Nelle Harper. You and me, we’re…apart from everybody else. Nobody gets me like you do.’ Nelle nodded. She felt the same. She’d never been one of the girls….”
They especially like detective stories—Hardy Boys, Rover Boys, Nancy Drew, Sherlock Holmes most of all. Nelle is Watson, Truman is Sherlock and Jennings plays Inspector Lestrade. Happily, a real mystery arises for them to solve: someone has broken windows at the drugstore and at the school and stolen some items.
There is sleuthing, a little danger, including a brush with the KKK, and a fairly happy ending with Truman planning and hosting a masquerade party.
Although designated for “young readers” under 12 (not young adults), it read smoothly enough for this not-young reader. There are some wry bits, perhaps meant to amuse adult readers. Gender confusion, for example: the novel opens, “When Truman first spotted Nelle, he thought she was a boy.” He is astounded: “‘You’re a girl?’” She responds: “‘You’re a boy?’”
Nelle wants Truman to be more normal. He replies: “Since when is normal any fun?”
Truman is called a sissy many times and on occasion behaves like a coward.
Nelle’s mother, Mrs. Lee, a subject mostly avoided in Monroeville and in books about Lee, is described as “real peculiar sometimes—wanders the streets saying the strangest things to people. Some nights she’ll be playing her piano on the porch at two in the morning.” Sometimes she “forgets to cook supper and poor Mr. Lee and his children end up eating watermelon for dinner.” Mrs. Lee is sent away to a mental hospital “down on the Gulf” for treatment. Lee in real life was furious at Capote’s assertions of her mother’s mental instability, including that she twice tried to drown Nelle!
A.C., here not called Atticus, is wise, of course, Lillie Mae vain and selfish, even to the point where she says: “I just can’t stand the sight of my son—it’s like he’s not even mine.” Arch is just as cruel. He disappoints Truman over and over, promising time together and then not showing up. Arch is irresponsible and often in trouble with the law for check-kiting or for his many semi-legal but ingenious get-rich schemes. The reader’s heart breaks for little Truman, who is bright, imaginative, sensitive and neglected.
Adult readers cannot help but know that this childhood friendship ended badly and early. Lee was not in attendance at Capote’s Black and White Ball at the Waldorf celebrating the success of “In Cold Blood” and she would proclaim Truman to be a psychopath and liar many times, but that was later.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” A shorter form of this review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio.