This is the second check-in post for our read-along of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. In this post, we cover chapters 12-21.
Check-in #1 covered chapters 11-11 and went live on Friday., July 19th.
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.
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!
Jem is now twelve years old and Scout is about 8 years old, which means two years have passed since the start of the book. Jem is feeling much more “grown up” and has stopped spending as much time with Scout, which is difficult for her. She spends the next summer pining for her friend Dill, but Dill never comes. In addition, her father is called to the state capital on a regular basis, when the legislature goes into session. At the beginning of this section, Calpurnia takes the kids to her church (an African-American church on the edge of town). We learn that it is called “First Purchase” because it was bought with the very first wages of freed slaves. A collection is taken up for the wife of Tom Robinson, who we learned at the end of Part One has been charged with raping a white woman.
Aunt Alexandra, Atticus’s sister, comes to stay with the family for a while, as Atticus will be very busy with the trial and as Alexandra believe the kids need a “woman’s influence” in the house. Also, there is fear of the difficult time ahead for Jem, Scout, and Atticus, because of Atticus’s decision (which we later learn was not entirely of his own choice) to defend Tom Robinson. Alexandra tries to teach Jem and Scout about their family history, which is a long one – the Finches have great standing in Maycomb, and she wants to impress upon them the importance of carrying on the respectability of their name. Alexandra also tries to get rid of Calpurnia (after the church incident, which Alexandra does not agree with), but Atticus refuses.
As Tom Robinson’s trial approaches, he is moved from one jail into Maycomb’s jail. Atticus realizes there could be trouble from certain people, and decides to spend the night outside of the jailhouse, guarding Robinson. Sure enough, a small mob does attempt to get at Tom Robinson, but Atticus stands his ground, with help from Jem, Scout, and Dill (who ran away from home to be with Scout and Jem, when he feels neglected by his mother and her new husband). The kids had shown up unexpectedly, and it is Scout’s innocence and bold friendliness (in addition to her having verbally recognized one of the men and said his name aloud, somewhat shaming him) which causes the men to reconsider and go home. We also learn that Mr. Underwood, a notorious racist, was also “covering” Atticus the entire time, from his window next door. Why – we’re not sure. Possibly out of respect for Atticus and for the law.
The trial begins the very next day and the courtroom is packed with men, women, and children, white and black alike (although the white folks get the best seats). Atticus makes an extraordinarily sound argument for Tom Robinson’s innocence (and for Mr. Ewell’s guilt), while the prosecutor aims to discredit Robinson with the race factor, calling him “boy” and making him look “disrespectful” and dangerous. The questioning is shocking and disturbing, especially to Dill, who becomes so emotional that he begins to cry, which causes Scout to guide him outside. There, they meet Mr. Dolphus Raymond, a local drunk who “had relations” with a black woman which resulted in many mixed-race kids. The kids learn, though, that Mr. Raymond only pretends to be drunk because it is easier for the townsfolk to accept his “eccentricities” if they believe him to be out of his wits. Indeed, he is sober and kind, and he loves his family.
At the end of this section, the jury returns with its verdict, which is simultaneously shocking and expected. Jem, for one, is convinced of a certain outcome, but he was wrong. He still has much to learn about the world.
I think it is safe to say that I am enjoying and appreciating this book much more than I did the first time around. I am so glad to be reading this again, and much more closely. Either I was not in the right place, previously, or I attempted to read it too quickly and without analysis or introspection, which, I believe, this book absolutely requires.
I thought Dill’s absence at the start of this section (which is physically separated from “Part One” of the story) further solidifies the theme of innocence-lost. Previously, Dill’s arrival each summer heralded games, laughter, mischievousness and all things childhood. His absence is felt deeply by Scout, who is not ready to stop being a kid, and much less so by Jem, who is ready to move on. Another interesting character study is the introduction of the black community, which happens at a necessary and opportune moment (just before Tom Robinson’s trial). Allowing Scout and Jem to attend Calpurnia’s church and to interact with this close, caring community helps stoke feelings of empathy for Robinson and his family, and causes them (especially Jem) to start thinking about justice in a deeper way.
Aunt Alexandra is not my favorite character, but I can understand her position and her concerns about the Finch family. I also appreciated the history she brings to the readers (and to Scout & Jem). Her presence is clearly another opportunity for Scout and Jem to grow-up, and it is paralleled with the reappearance of Dill. When he comes back, we see that the differences between his approach to life (childish, fantasy-like) and Jem’s (logical, cautionary) are becoming even more apparent. Scout, too, becomes a caretaker of sorts for Dill, who is one year older than she.
I have read many criticisms of the scene where Scout “scares off” the mob outside of the jailhouse, but I have to disagree with their assessment that the scene is unbelievable, contrived, or pat. Going into the scene, I knew what to expect (both because one can sense it coming and also because I remember small parts of it from my previous reading); however, I believe these critics misread this scene as one of “grown men afraid of a little girl.” That’s just not the case. They also claim that it’s impossible for Scout to be so unaware of what is really going on here but, again, they’re missing something. First, a “friendly mob” showed up earlier that day to talk to Atticus at home, to warn him. Scout had been scared at that time, but Atticus informed her that those were good men. When she arrived at the jail, it was dark and she could not see the men clearly – she mistook them for the same people, so why wouldn’t she assume they still had good intentions, since Atticus had said as much before? It is only when she sees a face she recognizes that she understands this is a different group, and midway through her attempt at speaking with the men, she does start to sense that something is wrong. I found the scene totally believable and heartbreaking. I think the men’s reaction, too, after having been simultaneously exposed by name and also somewhat shamed by Scout, is understandable (not to mention the fact that they likely did respect Atticus, didn’t expect him to be there, and certainly wouldn’t have pre-planned harming him in front of his own children).
Finally, I found the trial to be truly gripping, especially in the wake of all that has happened recently with the Trayvon Martin trial here in the U.S. One man laying out a claim for “humanness” and “truth,” while another played to racial stereotypes and bigoted fears. It was traumatic in many ways, especially when one considers how long ago this book was written, and how very little progress has been made. Jem’s full-hearted trust in his father’s ability (which is wonderful to behold, I will admit) and in the goodness and common sense of his neighbors is sweet and respectable, but ultimately misguided. The end of Chapter 21 is, I believe, a perfect second stopping point for the book (though I didn’t plan it that way!), as it clearly shatters Jem’s perceptions of the world and makes way for his pathway to adulthood.
“It’s time you started bein’ a girl and acting right!” (131).
1. Jem has clearly changes some from Part One, when he was telling Scout to stop acting like a girl. But Scout, Dill, and even Atticus all change in some ways during this second section. What are your thoughts on these changes?
“I began to feel sweat gathering at the edges of my hair; I could stand anything but a bunch of people looking at me. They were quite still.” (175).
2. As I mentioned above, there has been much debate about the mob scene outside the jail. This seems to be a part of the book where many opinions could be found equally valid. What are your thoughts about what happens between Scout and the men? Why does it work? Is it believable? Does Scout know what she is doing? And what do we think about Mr. Underwood’s covert stake-out, having Atticus “covered all the time?”
“Thomas Jefferson once said that all men are created equal . . . There is a tendency . . . for certain people to use this phrase out of context, to satisfy all conditions. The most ridiculous example I can think of is that the people who run public education promote the stupid and idle along with the industrious – because all men are created equal, educators will gravely tell you, the children left behind suffer terrible feelings of inferiority. We know all men are not created equal . . . some people are smarter than others.” (233).
3. In the first check-in post, I raised a question about the possible “statements” being made in this book about education. Some felt the scenes of Scout in school were realism for realism’s sake, others thought Harper Lee might have been trying to say something more. In light of the above, I’m still convinced that Lee has strong opinions about education – what are your thoughts on this? Have they changed from last week? What other conclusions can we draw from Atticus’s assertion that the only way in which we are all equal (in the U.S.) is in the eyes of the law? And is this true?