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!
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?
1. I think I’ve answered this, but I could go into more detail. I find Scout to be an interesting narrator, primarily because of the conflict which arises when any adult attempts to retell a story from her own childhood perspective. What do we actually remember? Can we trust our memories? When we say we felt or thought a certain thing – did we, truly, in that moment, or is that something we’ve come to think/feel after the fact? Can we be objective towards other people (characters) when we know, now, more about them than we did at the point-in-time of narration? It’s a difficult task, but I think Harper Lee is doing a nice job of combining the two points of view – a childlike perspective of the world written in a sophisticated style.
2. One of the things that most stood out to me was the “system” of education. That some kids, the poor ones, could show up on the first day, be counted as present, and then be allowed to be absent for the rest of the year. So, for years on end, these kids continue to return to the 1st grade. It is so sad, but also understandable. These kids rely on their parents (father) to live – if they are truant, then their father could go to jail. And where would that leave the kids? Clearly, much work needs to be done in this state both in terms of educational responsibilities and also in caring for the poor. In addition, though, is the downright fear that Scout’s teacher has of her abilities. Is it just because she doesn’t know how to handle a smart child? Did she come to the school expecting all the students to be on exactly the same level (meaning: nowhere)? Lee is clearly admonishing standardized education, and possibly even college educated teachers (because they’re indoctrinated toward a certain method)? I have a lot of thoughts swirling around about this…
3. My favorite character so far is Miss Maudie! I think she’s delightful. I’m also loving Atticus, for obvious reasons, I think. There aren’t really any characters I dislike (meaning, that I think are poorly drawn), but, of course, Scout’s extended family are just precious… and by precious I mean awful.
Question number 2: I don’t think Harper Lee was commenting at all on the state of education, but simply making it realistic. This is simply how schools were in the South at that time. It is what it is type of thing. She is stating it as it was and showing how Scout had to learn about and learn to live with people who were different than her. You have to remember the setting: 1930s (Great Depression), Southern, small town.
Schools then were locally run, so rules could be bent without repercussions. If a kid had to stay home and help on the farm because that’s how the family would survive, the town would let them…it’s not like the town could help much otherwise…it’s 1930s – Great Depression and everyone is in need. Also, there’s the matter of pride…some of the poor like the Cunninghams won’t take charity anyway. But you will see this rule bending happen again in the book for the good of a family.
Schools were still fairly new too…our system didn’t begin to standardize until the late 1930’s into the 40s. And in the South, things were slower moving due to farming life and severe segregation. (Heck, we still have summers off and there are so very few families who need their kids to work a farm now…so talk about slow moving changes.) In 1900 only half of all teens were attending high school and that was a jump in attendance. The cultural, social, and economical changes from the Great Depression and WWII are what changed schools the most, so that’s after this book’s setting.
As for the teacher, remember she’s from out of town and it’s her first year. As an outsider she shows how insulated Maycomb is. It is its own little world and she doesn’t know their ways, but she is the authority, so becomes overwhelmed by all the things she should know but doesn’t. (And trust me, no one can even imagine all the horror of a first year teaching unless they’ve done it.) The whole thing about printing in first grade and writing in third that Miss Caroline tells Scout seems silly, but it is a matter of a couple things. It may be that the teacher doesn’t know what to do with students of such varying ability, but also, the school’s way of putting things into rules and categories kind of mirrors the rigid social hierarchy of Maycomb itself. If in that time a school was only as good as the town that ran it, then the school was a mirror of the town.
Interesting thoughts! I’m not convinced that those scenes were included as realism for realism’s sake, though. Seems to me that there is a statement being made… but I appreciate and agree with a lot of what you’re saying about the time period and the history of education. I also think more states should go to year-round schooling… we had it in California, but in Illinois they’re still on the Fall/Spring semester system. Seems like an inefficient waste.
It seemed realistic to me and I went to school in the ’90’s. I was one of the slower kids, but that attitude that there is an order to things and you have to go through that order was still there in the small town I went to school in.
In my high school we had farm kids, and they still don’t come to school during certain seasons because they work the farm. I was never friends with any of them so I don’t know much about it. They were there for part of the year and just weren’t the rest. I never thought anything of it.
I completely agree that is realistic, but I also think it is a part of the story for a reason… I think the comparison between Scout’s education at school and her education from Atticus goes a bit deeper.
I teach in PA and yep year round school seems a waste to me too…most people involved bulk at the thought of losing three months vacation, but I personally think the breaks built into the school year in the year round system would be more refreshing, making teachers and students more effective and efficient throughout the year. Sorry, now I’m off topic.
I’m sure there is something there about Atticus and his ways of teaching and raising his kids, but I don’t think it’s necessarily an affront to the education system. Jem doesn’t seem to experience the same issues at any point. I’ve always taken it as a difference in personality between the two kids. Scout is learning that at some point you just go with the flow because it’s not going to work another way…this is pretty much what Atticus tells her. Tells her to imagine how that teacher must have felt (put yourself in her shoes) and they make a deal…Scout goes with the flow at school and can read away at home.
This is an interesting piece of the story to explore…I may have to read around a little!
Could somebody please explain, what does Dewey Decimal mean? I tried googling it, but I’ve found only some library system that has nothing to do with school, teaching and the cards the teacher was showing them.
Jem is confusing the Dewey Decimal System, which is a way of organizing a library previous to using computers, with John Dewey, who was a theorist of progressive education in the early 1900s. The two are not related…the Decimal System was started by Melville Dewey in 1876. Jem is probably learning to use the Dewey Decimal System and also hearing the teachers talk about the new teaching theories of Mr. Dewey and assuming they are one and the same.
Thanks for explaining, Jennine! I’ve never heard of either of the Deweys, and I’d never have deciphered it on my own!
You know, I was trying to avoid joining in on another event…but you’re making me want to read this! If I can finish On the Road and make some progress in The Odyssey by Sunday, I might be joining you. 🙂
Great! I’ve got more Odyssey (including first update post) scheduled this weekend, too. 🙂
Great questions! I’m still thinking about it, but here are my initial responses:
(1) A sophisticated narrative voice is appropriate for an adult retelling her story. In the dialogue, as remembered by the narrator, Scout sounds younger. I think it works.
(2) I don’t see Lee as making a clear statement about education. Rather, I think that Scout’s experience and the Ewells’ experience in school are examples of one of Lee’s larger themes: the application/misuse of discretion (a theme I discussed in my post yesterday). Scout tries to avoid Miss Caroline’s inflexible teaching method, but Atticus lays down the law and requires her to go.
Interestingly, in the 2006 Letter to Oprah that I reference in my post, Lee discusses how she learned to read, saying, “So I arrived in the first grade, literate.” I wonder whether she had a teacher similar to Miss Caroline, one who dissuaded her from reading at home. Recently, I was surprised to learn that there are some educators who still adhere to Miss Caroline’s rigid educational views. In a post (last month) on teaching my five-year-old twins to read, Beth at Too Fond commented that her daughter’s teacher told her to stop teaching her daughter to read (she lives in France).
(3) My favorite character is Atticus, and Miss Maudie is a close second. Both are examples of change in the Old South. Atticus, of course, is the type of lawyer many of us aspire to be, one who has the courage to do what he believes is right, even if the odds are stacked against him. He is a positive example of what a lawyer can be, quite different from our current reputation in the United States. As I wrote in a post last fall, “A Gallup Poll revealed that only 19% of respondents rated the honesty of lawyers highly or very highly, below even bankers, the people responsible for the Wall Street collapse.”
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1) I really like Scout as a narrator. She gives the reader an adorable and believable child’s perspective, but this technique is not exaggerated as to become irritating: we get some adult explanation in the important places and have no problem understanding what’s happening.
2) The passages about “right” and “wrong” education were very interesting for me. I don’t know much about american education system, but I’ve experienced some pedagogical experiments when at school and I didn’t like it. I also remember my frustration in the first grade when I realized we will be taught to read, write and count. That was so boring! Luckily, nobody forbid us to read, and I did that a lot, even during the lessons 🙂
3) My favorite characters are, of course, miss Maudie and Atticus. They are great with children, and Atticus is just a dream-parent: he is there when he is needed, but he doesn’t interfere much, and what is most important, he is honest. I also like Jem a lot – he is such a great little gentleman sometimes. Of course that is not the case, but he is cute anyway.
I first read the book when I was 10 something, and I don’t remember enjoying it much. Maybe I didn’t know so much about USA at that time, or I couldn’t appreciate the humor, or the translation happened to be bad (and I certainly couldn’t read it in English then) – I can’t tell now what was the reason for me not liking it, but now I really do, and I’m so happy this read-a-long has made me pick the book again 🙂
All these points and questions you’ve raised are now ticking over in my brain…for now here is a link to my first post and I’ll get back to you…:-)
Oooops! That was the link back to your post that I just added to my blog!! Do’h.
Let’s try again…
As a former teacher I knew John Dewey and his educational philosophy (we learn about it in Australia too). But I had just assumed he was a busy man who had also invented the Dewey decimal system as well! Jem’s comments about the Dewey decimal system always make me smile out loud!