As I read To Kill a Mockingbird (for the I-don’t-know-how-many-eth time), I made some notes of things that struck me as they might a first-time reader. It’s so hard to separate initial impressions from those which have formed over years, or those which have grown under outside influence (articles or interviews I’ve read, the film, conversations with other readers), and you’ll notice that these aren’t necessarily deep observations (OK, they’re not deep at all … simply conversation starters).
If you want to ponder the official discussion questions, visit the To Kill a Mockingbird Reading Guide on the Harper Collins website (read the entire book first, as the questions cover the whole novel, not just Part I).
But, if you’re willing to go along for a meandering ride on my train of thoughts, let’s go!
- A recent article in Entertainment Weekly asks “Would To Kill a Mockingbird be considered a Young Adult novel by today’s standards?” The designation didn’t exist in 1960 – books were books! It’s a coming-of-age novel told from the point of view of an adult looking back at her childhood. Scout is younger than most YA narrators (only 9 years old), but was, as the saying goes, wise beyond her years. I think calling TKAM a Young Adult book would miss the mark, as many readers would pass it over (and, likely wouldn’t be picked up as curriculum in so many schools – are any YA books officially discussed in classrooms?).
- The first sentence of the novel,When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow, launches into a short history of the Finch family and how they came to live in Maycomb. A few pages later, Scout and Jem meet Dill, giving the time parameters of the novel (“I was almost six and Jem was nearly ten”). The opening paragraph is interesting and important; were you waiting for Lee to revisit Jem’s broken arm? I was, but then I got so caught up in the story that I forgot about this detail I was expecting the author to circle back to. When a friend of my mother goes off on a tangent during conversation she holds up a finger in a wait-a-minute gesture and says “put a bookmark in that thought,” I neglected to do that on my original read of TKAM (Mr. Vahey, I’m sorry I was such a class clown in English!)
- I believe it’s probably true that most towns have a place like the Radley Place, around which rumors circulate and legends grow. We had one in the town I was raised – overgrown shrubs and peeling paint made the house stand out in the neighborhood of cookie cutter houses. The occupant was a single woman with long dark curly hair who walked everywhere in town. I remember some kids daring each other to ring her doorbell one Halloween (no, I wasn’t one of them!).
- All through Part I I was afraid of Boo. Was he leaving the ‘gifts’ in the tree? He seemed to be watching Scout, Jem, and Dill as much as they were watching him. The good deeds of returning Jem’s torn (and repaired!) pants and the blanket wrapped around the children while the watched the fire burn at Miss Maudie’s were extra creepy – a kind gesture? or a way that the children might be indebted to Boo? I knew he’d figure in Part II, but couldn’t yet call whether he was friend or foe.
- Speaking of creepy, Scout had a horrid time at school, didn’t she!? A teacher who scolded and punished her for knowing how to read and write?!? A classmate who casually squished the “cooties” (lice?) on his head?! With these scenes, and that of Walter Cunningham eating the noontime meal with the Finch family, Harper Lee demonstrates not only the scope of poverty in and around Maycomb, but the extremely kind and generous nature of Atticus Finch. Was there ever a more patient father who led by example?
- What about when Miss Maudie’s house burned down? Was this another way Lee showed the reader what a close-knit community it was? Another example of Boo’s curious behavior (the blanket), or adding to some vague indebtness to him by Jem and Scout?
- When I first read the novel it was usual to be able to play outside all day, responding to the call of your name (usually stretched to two syllables, DAAWWW-AAWWN) when it was time to come in for dinner (well, we called it supper). Re-reading now, with four kids of my own, I’m nostalgic for the freedom to wander that Scout, Jem, and Dill experienced. Have you seen Lenore Skenazy’s Free Range Kids blog? I embrace her philosophy of non-helicopter parenting.
Well, folks, I have a lot more post-its sticking out of my book, but I think I’ll call this post before the ramblings get incoherent. Feel free to respond to any of my observations in the Comments below, and/or link up to a To Kill a Mockingbird readalong post of your own. We’ll see you for Part II on July 23!