(I recently took place in a rereading of To Kill a Mockingbird for an online book group called Red Clay Readers. The group is sponsored by Alabama Media Group, the company I work with; I was asked to kick off the group reading with an analysis of the first chapters. When I reread the book–for the umpteenth time, since it is my favorite of all time–the following is what I came up with. Do you love To Kill a Mockingbird? How does it resonate with you now?)
To Kill a Mockingbird
Let’s start before the first chapter.
In my preparation to reread To Kill a Mockingbird once again, my first important question was: which copy should I read from? I have six different copies held on bookshelves throughout my home.
The one I decided upon quite casually was perfect for this Red Clay Readers project.
My 1993 hardcover edition includes a foreward by author Harper Lee, in which she argues against any introductions to her novel. “I associate Introductions with long-gone authors and works that are being brought into print after decades of internment…Mockingbird still says what it has to say; it has managed to survive the years without preamble,” she wrote.
To Kill a Mockingbird is far from long-gone; projects like this one remind us of its durability and beauty and legacy, to both new readers (perhaps some of you) and old friends (like me, and many others of you).
And so, while Lee herself might wonder at our endless discussions of her Pulitzer Prize-winning 1933 novel, we shall indeed discuss again.
To Kill a Mockingbird’s first two chapters immerse us immediately into two of its most important elements—its place and people. Its setting, in fact, is a character all its own; the town of Maycomb (based on Lee’s hometown Monroeville, halfway between Birmingham and the coast) is as alive as narrator Scout and her father Atticus.
The book’s first pages provide a fascinating Alabama history lesson, as readers are introduced to how the Finch ancestors settled into Maycomb. An early description of the town is one of my favorites in the entire book:
“Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Soehow, it was hotter then…Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.”
Place remains a prevalent theme throughout the novel, but in the beginning we see it primarily as the setting for the youngest characters’ adventures. Later on, it will come to serve as the stage for many deeper issues.
Those youngest characters take center stage in the first two chapters. We meet and quickly come to love Jem (Jeremy Atticus) and sister Scout (Jean Louise) Finch, along with neighbor friend Dill (a character based on Lee’s real-life childhood friend, Truman Capote) as they make their way through a Summer and start of the school-year in Maycomb.
Jem is wise, Scout is precocious, together they are at-odds and yet protective of one another. Dill is eccentric (he is, after all, from exotic Meridian). They are friends, co-conspirators and innocents as the story begins.
We also, of course, “meet” Boo Radley, described by Scout as the “malevolent phantom” who lives in the old Radley Place on the Finch’s street. As Jem accepts Dill’s dare to run across the street and touch the Radley house, the readers know there’s more going inside the house than the townspeople gossip about.
Other characters are introduced and, while Calpurnia and Atticus will become vastly important and central as the book progresses, for now they are in the background of the story of the children’s adventures.
When the second chapter takes Dill home to Meridian and the Finch children to school, the first sense of where the story might be going is hinted at. There are glimpses of the haves and the have-nots (or the have-somes and have-nots, since Atticus explains that everyone in Maycomb is poor), as Scout tries to instruct her teacher Miss Caroline to no avail of how the class system works.
“That’s okay, ma’am, you’ll get to know all the country folk after a while. The Cunninghams never took anything they can’t pay back—no church baskets and no scrip stamps,” she tells her, when young Walter Cunningham won’t take lunch money from their teacher. “They never took anything off of anybody, they get along on what they have. They don’t have much, but they get along on it.”
As I read the first two chapters of To Kill a Mockingbird yet again (my first time was in ninth grade English class, the most recent was last year), I was reminded again of the book’s power. Lee’s language, the eternal voice of Scout (which is sometimes criticized; how could a six-year-old speak with such authority?), the mystery of Boo Radley, the sense of place—it all still works.