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To Kill a Mockingbird
Harper Lee

THE NOVEL

THE PLOT

The story begins during the summer when Jean Louise Finch, nicknamed Scout, is six years old, and her brother Jem is about to enter the fifth grade. One day the two children meet a new playmate, seven-year-old Dill, who has come from Mississippi to spend the summer with his Aunt Rachel. Dill is fascinated by the neighborhood gossip about "Boo" Radley, a man in his thirties who has not been seen outside of his home in years. Egged on by Dill, Jem and Scout try to think up ways to lure Boo Radley out of his house, and they play games based on various stories they have heard about the Radley family. Their favorite part of the game is acting out an incident in which Boo Radley supposedly stabbed his father in the leg with a pair of scissors.

When fall comes, Scout enters the first grade. Because she has already taught herself how to read and write, Scout finds school a disappointment. Both she and Jem are intrigued, however, by the discovery that someone has been leaving small gifts in a knothole in one of the large oak trees on the corner of the Radley property.

Soon it is summer again, and Dill returns for another visit. The children's schemes for making contact with Boo Radley grow bolder this year, and on Dill's last night in town they decide to sneak up onto the Radley porch and spy on Boo through the window. Jem goes first, but just as he reaches the window, Nathan Radley, Boo's brother, catches sight of the children and frightens them off with a blast from his shotgun. Jem is in such a hurry to get away that he leaves his trousers behind when they catch on a wire fence. That night Jem goes back to retrieve his pants and finds that someone has mended them and left them neatly folded over the fence, as if just waiting for his return.

By now Jem realizes that Boo Radley is not a monster after all, but has been playing along with the children's games. Scout does not figure this out until the following winter, on the night that the house of their neighbor, Miss Maudie, burns to the ground. While Scout is standing outside in the cold watching the fire, someone sneaks up behind her and places a blanket around her shoulders. Later, Scout and Jem realize that there was only one person in town who was not already at work fighting the fire- Boo Radley.

Now that Jem and Scout realize that Boo Radley is basically a kind person, their interest in the Radley family begins to fade. In the meantime, however, they learn that their father Atticus has become the defense lawyer for Tom Robinson, a black man who is charged with raping Mayella Ewell, a white girl. At first the children care about the case only because it means that their friends have begun to call Atticus nasty names. Atticus warns them that they mustn't get drawn into fist fights over these taunts.


Scout manages to keep out of fights until Christmas day, when her least favorite cousin calls Atticus a "nigger-lover," and she responds by punching him. After this incident Scout and Jem begin to think that perhaps their father's hatred of violence is just a sign of weakness on his part. Their suspicions are supported by Atticus' dislike of hunting. Although both children have received air rifles for Christmas, their father makes no secret of his disapproval. Then one day a mad dog wanders into the neighborhood and the sheriff calls on Atticus to put the animal out of its misery. The children learn for the first time that their "feeble" father was once the best marksman in Maycomb County, and has given up shooting out of choice, not fear.

Even knowing this, the children find it hard to follow Atticus' example and hold their tempers. One old lady in the neighborhood, Mrs. Dubose, makes Jem so angry with her insulting remarks about Atticus that he destroys every flower in her garden. To make amends Jem has to read to Mrs. Dubose every afternoon for two months. Only after Mrs. Dubose has died do Jem and Scout learn that the old lady was struggling to overcome an addiction to drugs. Atticus tells the children that Mrs. Dubose, unpleasant as she may have been, was a truly brave woman. Courage, he says, is not "a man with a gun," it is the willingness to fight back even when the odds are stacked against you.

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© Copyright 1984 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
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