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To Kill a Mockingbird
Harper Lee




"When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow."

Almost from the moment you read the first sentence of the novel you are aware that you are in the hands of a good storyteller. The narrator, Scout Finch, lets you know right away that Jem was not seriously hurt; he recovered in time to realize his dream of playing high-school football. But at the same time, Scout is in no hurry to tell you how her brother happened to break his arm. You will not learn the answer to this question until the final chapters of the story.

For the meantime, leaving you in suspense about the cause of Jem's broken arm, the narrator backtracks into what may at first seem to be a series of irrelevant digressions.

First of all, you learn a little bit about the history of Scout's family. The first Finch to settle in Alabama was a devout Methodist who broke only one of his church's rules- the one against owning another human being. Simon Finch was a slaveowner. After him came a series of descendants who stayed on the same piece of land, making a modest living as farmers. Scout's father Atticus and her Uncle Jack broke the family tradition by going into professions. Atticus became a lawyer, and Jack studied medicine.


You may wonder as you read this section what this family history can possibly have to do with the plot of the novel, and the question of how Jem broke his arm. These few paragraphs have raised several subjects that become very important to the story later on- the evils of slaveowning, the importance of family tradition in the South, and Atticus' dislike of being on the losing side of a criminal case.

Scout Finch goes on to describe her hometown of Maycomb, Alabama. Maycomb, you are told, was a "tired old town" where people moved slowly and nothing ever seemed to happen. "A day was twenty-four hours long but seemed longer."

If Maycomb is a small, isolated town, Scout Finch's world is even smaller, limited to the boundaries of her immediate neighborhood. At the time the story begins, Scout is going on six years old. Her mother died when she was only two, and her father Atticus is an older man who often seems remote from his children.

One day, Scout and her older brother Jem discover that there is a new boy in the neighborhood. He is Charles Baker Harris, nicknamed Dill. Dill is spending the summer with his Aunt Rachel, and although he is not quite seven years old- just a year older than Scout, and three years younger than Jem- he has had many experiences that seem exciting to Jem and Scout. For example, he comes from a town with a movie theater, and can tell the stories of many movies.

In return, Scout and Jem entertain Dill with tales about the local mystery man, Boo Radley. Boo is a man in his thirties who is never seen outside of his house. The children know about Boo only from local gossip and legends. One story is that he once stabbed his father with a pair of scissors. And the neighborhood gossip, Miss Stephanie Crawford, claims that Boo is a peeping Tom who sneaks out of his house at night and spies in people's windows. The rest of the Radleys are almost as strange as Boo. They seem to have no friends, and their house is always shut up tight, even in the hottest part of the summer.


Perhaps you can remember from your own childhood a house that was rumored to be haunted, or a family that the local children believed to be odd or even scary. If the rumors were not really true, you did not want to know about it. It was fun and exciting to believe them, at least for a time. Something similar is going on with Scout, Jem, and Dill. They imagine that Boo Radley is six and a half feet tall, eats raw squirrels and cats for dinner, and has perpetually bloodstained hands. They even dare each other just to run up to the Radley house and touch it. The stories about Boo Radley are a source of excitement in an otherwise dull small town. On one level, perhaps, they don't really believe the tales about Boo Radley, but they try their best to pretend that they are true.  


ECC [To Kill a Mockingbird Contents] []

© Copyright 1985 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
Electronically Enhanced Text © Copyright 1993, World Library, Inc.
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