When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.
And so begins To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper's Lee's beautifully written coming of age story set in small town Alabama in the 1930's. There have been critics who have complained that the language used by the narrator is too "adult" for a child. But the age of the narrator isn't at all clear. The story of Jem's broken arm occurs over a three year period when the narrator is between six and nine years old - but the narrator is looking back at those years from the distance of a greater age:
When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident.
How many years? She never says. But even these discussions about the accident took place in an earlier time:
I maintain that the Ewells started it all, but Jem, who was four years my senior, said it started long before that. He said it began the summer Dill came to us, when Dill first gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out.
I said if he wanted to take a broad view of the thing, it really began with Andrew Jackson. If General Jackson hadn't run the Creeks up the creek, Simon Finch would never have paddled up the Alabama, and where would we be if he hadn't ? We were far too old to settle an argument with a fist fight, so we consulted Atticus. Our father said we were both right.
Despite the critics, most people love the voice of Jean Louise Finch, who is known to almost everyone in the novel as Scout. It is an adult voice recreating the thoughts of childhood. Don't we all remember ourselves as more verbal than we really were as children?
It is a distinctive voice and distinctively southern. She weaves information into the story in a roundabout way, the way a conversation happens in real life. In those first few paragraphs she gives us a picture of the nature of the relationship between Scout and Jem, she relays the importance of Atticus, their father, as a source of all wisdom for them and she introduces the names of most of the other principal characters: the Ewells, Dill, and Boo Radley. She paints us a picture without us even knowing it.
A few pages later, Harper Lee shows us she is just as skilled when she is overtly painting a picture:
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. Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer's day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. 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.
People moved slowly then. They ambled across the square, shuffled in and out of the stores around it, took their time about everything. A day was twenty-four hours long but seemed longer. There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County. But it was a time of vague optimism for some of the people: Maycomb County had recently been told that it had nothing to fear but fear itself.
I love those paragraphs. I love the way she signals the story's time period without actually naming the year. I love the alliteration: rainy /red; grass grew; sagged/square; dog/day; hitched/Hoover; flicked flies. I love the phrase "sweltering shade". And the slow moving people - you can just hear the prolonged first syllable in the southern pronunciation of ambled and shuffled.
She evokes the day-to-day life of children very well. When I was a child we were allowed to go up the street as far as the alley at the top of our block and down to corner at the bottom of the street and we had to be home before the street lights came on. As a child I would have given you my opinion on every person who lived on my street; I knew them all either to talk to or to talk about. Harper Lee paints a similar picture of Jem and Scout's childhood:
When I was almost six and Jem was nearly ten, our summertime boundaries (within calling distance of Calpurnia [the cook]) were Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose's house two doors to the north of us and the Radley Place three doors to the south. We were never tempted to break them. The Radley Place was inhabited by an unknown entity the mere description of whom was enough to make us behave for days on end; Mrs. Dubose was plain hell.
But even though some things remind me of my youth, Maycomb did exist in another time and in some ways another world; definitely a pre-1960's world. And the casual way in which the children take that world for granted, the good and the bad, can sometimes be jarring. For instance Jem (aged 9) explains to the new boy Dill (aged 7) that Maycomb is much smaller than Meridian, Mississippi; it doesn't even have a movie theater:
"Don't have any picture shows here, except Jesus ones in the courthouse sometimes," Jem said.
And later Scout, relating the story of the arrest of a white man for disturbing the peace, casually relates that the "Sheriff hadn't the heart to put him in jail alongside Negroes" so the prisoner was locked in the courthouse basement. You can take that sentence at face value as you read it; but on a second reading of the novel, after you know the whole story and you know that Scout is writing this with the advantage of twenty-twenty hindsight, you realize that Harper Lee is making a statement about the Sheriff and about the fact that attitudes like this were taken for granted.
In the first chapter, Harper Lee paints us a picture of Dill, the new boy who is spending the summer in Maycomb. He is very small ("Sitting down, he wasn't much higher than the collards.") and "a curiosity."
He wore blue linen shorts that buttoned up to his shirt, his hair was snow white and stuck to his head like duck fluff; he was a year my senior but I towered over him. As he told us the old tale his blue eyes would lighten and darken; his laugh was sudden and happy; he habitually pulled at a cowlick in the center of his forehead.
Knowing that Dill was based on Harper Lee's real life childhood friend, Truman Capote, makes the descriptions even more fun.
The other character she introduces is the mysterious Boo Radley, a person who never leaves his house and whom the children have never laid eyes on. Mark Twain had nothing on Harper Lee when it came to describing the imaginings of children:
Inside the house lived a malevolent phantom. People said he existed, but Jem and I had never seen him. People said he went out when the moon was down, and peeped into windows. When people's azaleas froze in a cold snap, it was because he had breathed on them. Any stealthy small crimes committed in Maycomb were his work. Once the town was terrorized by a series of morbid nocturnal events; people's chickens and household pets were found mutilated; although the culprit was Crazy Addie, who eventually drowned himself in Barker's Eddy, people still looked at the Radley Place, unwilling to discard their initial suspicions. A Negro would not pass the Radley Place at night, he would cut across to the sidewalk opposite and whistle as he walked. The Maycomb school grounds adjoined the back of the Radley lot; from the Radley chicken yard tall pecan trees shook their fruit into the schoolyard, but the nuts lay untouched by the children: Radley pecans would kill you. A baseball hit into the Radley yard was a lost ball and no questions asked.
Because the narrator is not, in fact, six years old, she follows this description with some actual facts about the Radleys, but still told from the point of view of children. In laying the stage for the children's project to get Boo Radley to "come out" Harper Lee also sets the stage for the reader to start comparing the fathers in the story. She has already, in one sentence, shown us that the children respected their father Atticus. She then relates the story, to the extent known, of the relationship between Mr. Radley and his son Arthur.
It is interesting that only one person expresses judgment on Mr. Radley in the hearing of the children. On the day that Mr. Radley died, the children stood on the porch with Calpurnia, their cook and almost surrogate mother, to watch the commotion up the street as the body is taken away.
"There goes the meanest man ever God blew breath into,"murmured Calpurnia, and she spat meditatively into the yard. We looked at her in surprise, for Calpurnia rarely commented on the ways of white people.
In the first chapter Harper Lee doesn't just set the scene, she begins the action. Dill wonders what Boo Radley looks like.
Jem gave a reasonable description of Boo: Boo was about six-and-a-half feet tall, judging from his tracks; he dined on raw squirrels and any cats he could catch, that's why his hands are bloodstained -- if you ate an animal raw you could never wash the blood off. There was a long jagged scar that ran across his face; what teeth he had were yellow and rotten; his eyes popped, and he drooled most of the time.
"Let's try to make him come out," said Dill. "I'd like to see what he looks like."
Dill then dares Jem to run up and touch the Radley house; the first raid on the Radley Place.
Read this novel. You won't be sorry.