This is the first check-in post for our read-along of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. In this post, we cover chapters 1-11 (or “Part One” of the book).
Check-in #2 will cover chapters 12-21 and will go live on Thurs., July 25th.
Check-in #3 (or final review) will cover chapters 22-31 and will go live on Weds., July 31st.
If you want to link-up your own thoughts, your answers to my questions (below), or, eventually, a review of the book, you can do so at This Post. You can also still sign-up to join us in this read-along by visiting This Post.
Participation is totally voluntary, of course. Linking-up to your check-in posts and “registering” is just a way for those of us who are reading the book to visit one another, see what we all think, and engage in some fun conversations about this piece of classic American literature. I’m sure we’ll all have different experiences with this one, and I look forward to reading your thoughts!
Summary of Part One:
At the beginning of the book, we meet our narrator, Jean Louise (“Scout”) Finch, as well as her older brother, Jeremy Atticus (“Jem”) Finch. Scout is entering the first grade and her brother is almost ten, but they seem to be close friends and playmates, despite the age difference and differences of temperament. Scout is a tomboy who does not take kindly to be called a “girl” and Jem seems to be something of the All-American boy type. He respects his father, Atticus, immensely, and wants to be a gentlemen, just like his dad. We also meet their friend, Charles Baker (“Dill”) Harris, who stays with his aunt, Miss Rachel. We later learn that he might not have much of a permanent home at all – he is creative, dramatic, and imaginative, and he becomes obsessed with the mystery of Scout & Jem’s neighbor, Arthur “Boo” Radley.
In this first part, Jem and Scout (and sometimes Dill) are at the center of the story. We readers see much of their world, Maycomb, through their eyes – but we see more clearly the racism, myths, and legends than they do, and particularly more than Scout as she is so young and in many ways quite naive. The child’s play (and especially the presence of Dill) seems to be the central focus – youth, innocence, and playfulness. There are hints, as the chapters go along, of darker things to come – which leads me to believe that this will be a coming-of-age story for both Scout and Jem.
Some of the other interesting interactions include Scout’s relationships at school, both with her classmates and with her teacher. Scout shows herself to be quite bright, thanks to instruction from her father, but the teacher is clearly threatened by her intelligence and her ability to read. Jem is balancing between childhood and adulthood, viewing his father in ways that Scout can’t, yet. He still grasps childhood in many ways, as demonstrated by his playtime with Dill and Scout, but he longs to know more about and be more like his father, Atticus.
The mystery of Boo Radley is dangled in front of the reader in many ways, but mostly through a child’s somewhat mystified view. There is no clear reason given to us to fear Boo Radley, but his private nature, the history of his father and family, and the supernatural wonderment of childhood in general all help to construct an eerie, ominous aura around his character. Some of the more clear-headed and just adults, like Atticus and Miss Maudie, try to help guide the children toward compassion and hint at deeper troubles in the Radley family’s past.
Near the end of Part One, a fire takes Miss Maudie’s house and threatens the entire neighborhood. Though Miss Maudie takes the events in stride, this fire seems to be a turning-point of sorts. Immediately afterward, Scout begins to learn more about what her father does for a living, and about the troubling case he will soon be involved with (as a lawyer). People’s darker natures – racism, bigotry, and ignorance- begin to show, and in such a way that Scout, who is growing up, can begin to comprehend and feel threatened by it. The trial of Tom Robinson is clearly going to change Scout’s world forever.
Well, the first eleven chapters cover approximately two years, which is already a departure from what I remembered of my first read, years ago. I thought the entire book took place during one summer. Oops! I also remembered the book being narrated entirely from a child’s (Scout’s) point of view, but while it is Scout’s POV, the narrative voice seems to fluctuate between adult, past tense, and childlike in-the-moment, such as in dialogue. This is interesting – it really does make it feel like an adult’s recollection of her childhood, which is exactly what the narrative is.
I’m also enjoying the narrative structure more than I remembered (or perhaps more than I was able to appreciate the first time). The use of ellipses in Scout’s tales of Boo Radley, for instance, create an interesting sense of positive mystery. We learn that Boo is probably the one responsible for doing nice things for the kids, such as mending Jem’s pants and creating soap figurines of Scout and Jem, but this is never implicitly stated. It adds a complexity to the story, a sort of guessing game that makes us sympathize with Boo (in a way that Atticus and Miss Maudie probably do) without even having met him, yet.
Finally, I really enjoy the gothic elements of this story. It was not something I remembered at all, and I rarely see it talked about. We get the sense of the gothic from the legends and secret tales of Boo Radley (all great gothic stories have ancient and scary word-of-mouth tales at their core), and also the superstitions that fill Part One. These are all childlike in nature, so it may be something that fades away in the rest of the book, but I enjoy it here. The gothic mood is intensified with the extraordinarily cold temperatures and snow that arrive in Maycomb for the first time in anyone’s memory (an exhausted technique, but still wonderful!), the fire, and the mad dog (which reminded me of something out of E.A. Poe). All of this, I think, leads up to the danger that will be Tom Robinson’s trial.
Overall, I’m enjoying To Kill a Mockingbird quite a bit – much more than I did when I read it the first time, about 5 or so years ago. I still find the prose somewhat dry, but I love the characters and I’m interested to see how the rest of the book will compare to this “Part One,” which is clearly constructed to present a childlike “before” picture to what will be happening “after.”
“When we were small, Jem and I confined our activities to the southern neighborhood, but when I was well into the second grade at school and tormenting Boo Radley became passé, the business section of Maycomb drew us frequently up the street past the real property of Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose” (114).
1. What are your impressions of Scout as narrator? We know she is young, but clearly the narrative voice is quite sophisticated. Do you see any conflicts or problems with this? Or do you find it effective?
“[Miss Caroline] discovered that I was literate and looked at me with more than faint distaste. Miss Caroline told me to tell my father not to teach me any more, it would interfere with my reading” (19).
2. This book, though perhaps most widely known for its statements about equality and civil rights, also clearly has something to say about education. Given what we know about Scout’s “learning,” her teacher’s reprimands, and the state of children such as the Ewells, what does To Kill a Mockingbird seem to say about education? What are the other (higher?) priorities?
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it” (32).
3. And, just for fun: Who is your favorite character so far? Least favorite? Why?