I keep coming back to this book. The jacket flap reads: “One of the best-loved classics since its publication in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird has been translated into more than twenty languages and sold over thirty million copies worldwide.” That was 1995. A more recent statistic says forty million in fifty years. There are many reasons readership for To Kill a Mockingbird has never died.
I’ve written about the book’s lovable narrator, Scout, and about its symmetry, but what also draws me in time and again is “place.” Maycomb is based on Harper Lee’s own Monroeville, Alabama. Her familiarity with the real small town informs the fictional. But what makes Maycomb even more believable is the way it contains the story.
Lesson: Locate your place with expansive geographic context & intimate human scale
We’re all familiar with the dimensional opening of a movie: earth spins, bird’s eye view dives through clouds, hones in on North America, the vast landscape becoming hills, trees, streets, houses, zooms onto a front porch to a paper a boy has just thrown. What would take minute to view in film requires time for us to read the first few pages of Lee’s novel, but we receive a similar cinematic sense: picture Simon Finch paddling up the Alabama (p. 3), zoom out to the Battle of Hastings, Cornwall, England, back “across the Atlantic to Philadelphia, thence to Jamaica, thence to Mobile, and up the Saint Stephens”…”a homestead on the banks of the Alabama River some forty miles above Saint Stephens…Finch’s Landing…Maycomb, some twenty miles east of Finch’s Landing,” zoom in to Atticus’s office, the courthouse, hat rack, spittoon. Wide angle again to the Maycomb streets, people ambling across the square, to the main residential street, move in close up to home, the kitchen, the Finch family’s nearsighted cook, Calpurnia (p. 6).
This telescoping technique works to set the story in context and bring it into focus to commence action.
Lesson: Give your story boundaries to push against
As the story begins, Scout is obedient: When I was almost six and Jem was nearly ten, our summertime boundaries (within calling distance of Calpurnia) 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. That was the summer Dill came to us.
Uh oh. Tension is established immediately through “place.” The kids will be tempted to stray beyond the imposed neighborhood boundaries. Scout describes the nearby terror in animate detail: The Radley Place jutted into a sharp curve beyond our house. Walking south, one faced its porch; the sidewalk turned and ran beside the lot. The house was low, was once white with a deep front porch and green shutters, but had long ago darkened to the color of the slate-gray yard around it. Rainrotted shingles drooped over the eaves of the veranda; oak trees kept the sun away. The remains of a picket drunkenly guarded the front yard—a “swept” yard that was never swept—where johnson grass and rabbit-tobacco grew in abundance. Inside the house lived a malevolent phantom.
For decades, literature students and devoted readers have physically or mentally mapped Maycomb, drawing the jutting curve of the Radley house south of the Finch’s and the schoolyard beyond, penciling the route to town past Mrs. Dubose’s house north to the courthouse and office which claims Atticus daily. The setup comes into play again and again as the kids venture beyond the comfort zone. As they test the limits, they grow older and wiser, more aware of the larger, less safe world beyond their home. In the course of the three years of the book, they will not only intrude into the terrifying territory of Boo Radley’s yard, to the town unaccompanied at night, and to a courtroom trial without permission, but they’ll gain vivid impressions of harsh places: the treacherous Ewell’s property and a far-away prison from which Tom Robinson, who has been falsely accused by Ewell of raping Ewell’s daughter and unjustly convicted, tries to escape.
Lesson: Know your locale and employ detail consistently to enrich and fulfill the story
Near story’s end, when Jem and Scout are on their way in the dark to the school Halloween pageant, they pass by the Radley place and Scout trips on a root in the road. They enter the school yard and Scout asks, “How do you know we’re at, Jem?” He replies, “I can tell we’re under the big oak because we’re passin’ through a cool spot. Careful now, and don’t fall again.” The big oak has been a constant in the story, symbolic of Boo Radley’s presence. After the pageant on their return home, Jem and Scout sense they’re being followed. Scout, in her ham costume, is unable to see anything, but the details inform her and set up tension. She narrates: I felt the sand go cold under my feet and I knew we were near the big oak.
There’s a scuffle, Jem is hurt and carried home by someone, and Scout makes her way in what remains of her ham costume. In the end, after it’s revealed that Ewell had tried to attack the children and Boo saved them, Scout offers Boo her arm to escort him home. She walks with him, fearless, all the way to his front porch—only a short stroll from her house but a far distance from where she was when the story began.