A Place to Grow: Mapping Maycomb

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. 


Symmetry of “To Kill a Mockingbird”

As the story goes, when Harper Lee first submitted her manuscript for To Kill a Mockingbird in 1957 to J.P. Lippincott publishers, she was told it was a “series of short stories strung together.” She worked with an editor to shape the material into novel form, and the novel was published in 1960 to acclaim. It’s a good bet that few unpublished writers would get that kind of editorial help today, and it’s likely that some editors would reject this Pulitzer-Prize winning book on the grounds that the story wraps up too tidily and that some passages border on the polemic. Call me old-fashioned, I love the symmetry of this book and I can accept the author’s slipped-in moralities: failure of schools to teach, comparisons of Hitler’s Nazism to America’s racism, the detritus of missionary zeal in tribal cultures, hypocrisy of the “well-bred”—because of her handling of the narrative through Scout.

Lesson: Use symbols well to shape the story

Symbols abound in first-person narrator Scout’s world, and they are used by Lee to shape the story from first page to last.


A broken arm, described by Scout in the opening sentence, ties Jem, her brother and unfortunate victim, to Tom Robinson, the Negro convicted of raping a white woman. Jem’s left arm is “somewhat shorter than his right” and Tom’s left arm, seen two-thirds of the way through the book, “was fully twelve inches shorter than his right, and hung dead at his side.” The fact of Tom’s disability should have saved him from the rape conviction, but it doesn’t. Jem’s injury, mentioned in the first sentence, is not incurred until 20 pages from the novel’s completion. The broken arm, seen by the reader through Scout’s eyes as “dangling crazily in front of him,” bookends a story of racism and love.

Oak tree

An oak tree with its knothole and jutting roots looms large in Scout and Jem’s small-town neighborhood. The tree lies at the edge of the Radley property, along the route to school (though there is some confusion here—early in the book there are two oak trees that seem closer to Scout’s home and later there is the one that is closer to the school yard—oh, well—this may be evidence of the novel having been a series of stories). One day the knothole beckons with foil-wrapped gum, then other gifts such as soap sculpted in the likenesses of Scout and Jem, but soon the hole is plugged with cement, effectively cutting off the cryptic communication between the children and the mysterious filler-of-the-knothole-with-presents reclusive neighbor Boo Radley.

In the course of the story, the children venture beyond their neighborhood and the phantoms of their imagination to the larger world of the courtroom, where their father, Atticus, defends Tom, and where the children witness a truly bad man—Tom’s accuser Ewell— and learn the horrific outcome of his intentions.

The novel is winging its way to a close when the children, headed for a school Halloween pageant, pass under the oak—a stand-in for Boo. The reader is alerted: Boo has a role yet to play. When, on the way home, barefooted Scout (her vision obscured by her ham costume) “felt the sand go cold under my feet and I knew we were near the big oak,” it’s as if Boo were there, but we trust the narrator and the author not to shock by making Boo a villain. The children are accosted and Scout is unable to see who is grabbing her or who has appeared on the scene to save them. The reader understands before Scout does that the rescuer is probably Boo Radley.

Sharp implements, gestures, flowers, food, feet, dogs, birds

The attacker is Ewell, the man who with his daughter invented the rape story to frame Tom Robinson. Ewell is killed with a knife. His own? Boo’s? Scout can’t possibly know—she was inside the ham! The reader pieces it together as Scout sees and hears Atticus and Sheriff Tate discussing scenarios of the attack and the killing. By the time Atticus asks her, “Can you possibly understand?,” the reader is certain Boo killed Ewell in defense of the children, and knows that Atticus and Tate are corroborating on a story that Ewell fell on his knife. They want to protect Boo from being subjected to prosecution.” Earlier she’d been told that it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird, because all they do is sing, and she makes the connection saying to her father: “Well, it’d be sort of like shootin’ a mockingbird, wouldn’t it?

Sharp implements—scissors, hedge clippers, knives—slice into the story from beginning to end. Comforting gestures—Atticus’ pat on Jem’s head, Boo’s petting of Jem’s head, Scout’s hand on Boo’s arm as she escorts him home—add a gentle touch. Flowers—a garden of azaleas, camellias with tops lopped off, rows of potted geraniums—define and connect women characters. Food is ever present—as nourishment, payment of debt, gratitude, love, and social strata clues. Shoes and barefeet keep the story grounded in a rural Southern place. Soap—as sculpture, a sign of cleanliness, a measure of poverty—is a tactile element. A rabid dog, shot dead by Atticus, hints at the human deaths to come. Birds, real and symbolic—mockingbirds, the good-hearted Finch family and neighbors, populate the story and keep hope aloft through the end.

Full circle

The dangerous man is dead, racism is alive but more open to scrutiny in the Maycomb community, and the children are safe. Atticus gets the last word: “Most people are [nice], Scout, when you finally see them.” The book comes full circle to Jem, asleep with his bandaged arm. Atticus is in his son’s room and “would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.” Sigh. The reader rests in that moment of resolution.

Narrating “To Kill A Mockingbird”

There’s at least one great reason that To Kill a Mockingbird has been in print for 50 years: Scout. From the novel’s first sentence, this lovable, mischievous, innocent, hard-headed, and wise first-person narrator (aka Jean Louise Finch) takes us firmly by the hand and escorts us through a story spanning three years of her childhood and racial prejudice in a small Southern town. Her lost innocence and growing awareness is our own, again and again. Her matter-of-fact assessment “Well, it’d be sort of like shootin’ a mockingbird, wouldn’t it?” which comes at book’s end and is spoken to her father, Atticus, is as startling, provocative, and revelatory on rereading as it was the first time we came upon it. Why would anyone kill a mockingbird, when all it does is sing?

Whose story is it?

Harper Lee’s Scout is a masterful teacher for studying point of view and narrative voice. Writers are often confronted with the question: “Whose story is it?” The answer can lead to decisions about narrative structure. With Scout, the better question is “Whose story is it to tell?” Scout is at the center of story and it’s very much about her, but it’s also about her brother Jem, her attorney father, a recluse named Boo Radley, a black man unjustly accused, and the town of Maycomb, Alabama—a fictional microcosm of race and class prejudice in the Depression-era deep South. Scout can tell it not only because she witnesses most of it, but because she’s the innocent and can ask, “Well how do you know we ain’t Negroes?”

Published in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird encapsulates a time and place before the civil rights movement. Scout’s narrative voice and point of view has kept the story relevant for current times. Issues of race, class, and morality continually challenge us and to see them fresh we need an unbiased, open perspective, such as Scout’s. Ultimately, it becomes again and again our story and ours to tell.

Lesson: Distinguish the voice through diction

It’s clear upfront that the story is being narrated after the incidents: “When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them…” The voice is adult—”Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged…” How many six-year-olds say “assuaged”? Lee’s mastery is in how that narrative voice dips easily back into Scout’s in-the-child-moment presence, so that we are there with her. Scout is intelligent and precocious, an avid reader who is told by her teacher not to read because she’s too far ahead of the class. The setup allows for young Scout’s intelligent observations and rich vocabulary of remembered descriptions, and also for authenticity. Because she’s a child living in a small town in the South—no matter how well she’s been schooled by herself or her self-schooled attorney father—she says things like “Dill’ll wanta come” and “Then I’m goin’ with you. If you say no you’re not, I’m goin’ anyway, hear?” and “Ain’t you feeling good?”

She’s childlike but not childish, and she’s a reliable source of information when it comes to knowing what’s important to children. She relates in high vocabulary an incident involving Jem and a cantankerous old woman—”I wasn’t sure what Jem resented most, but I took umbrage at Mrs. Dubose’s assessment of the family’s mental hygiene.” Two pages later, angry with Atticus for making Jem apologize to Mrs. Dubose, she slips from child wisdom —”I hated him for that, but when you are in trouble you become easily tired; soon I was hiding in his lap and his arms were around me.”— to child wondering—”I said I didn’t see why we had to keep our heads anyway, that nobody I knew at school had to keep his head about anything.” 

Lesson: Don’t tell all you know

As narrator, the adult Scout knows the answers to the child Scout’s questions, and she could tell us from her adult perspective. But, bless her heart, she doesn’t. Who put the carved soap figures in the knothole of the tree? Who saved Jem’s life?  The adult Scout lets the reader have the satisfaction of figuring many things out ahead of her childhood self. We know she knows all now, but understand what she didn’t know then. She pulls the reader through the story by sustaining the suspense as she experienced it in childhood. “Something crushed the chicken wire around me. Metal ripped on metal and I fell to the ground and rolled as far as I could, foundering to escape my wire prison. From somewhere near by came scuffling, kicking sounds, sounds of shoes and flesh scraping dirt and roots.” She’s in the ham costume, so logically she can’t see and tell in the moment. For this reason, among many, the ham costume is a masterful narrative prop. It keeps Scout and us in the dark and allows an omission of information that readers will accept, as they keep turning pages.

Lesson: Telescope

At times she speaks from the long view: “I never saw [Boo Radley] again.” At other times, she moves in closer to the action—“Christmas came and disaster struck”—and closer still— “I felt the sand go cold under my feet and I knew we were near the big oak.” This telescoping keeps us engaged as readers. It gives us the bigger picture for context and draws us into the details with sensory writing. 

Lesson: Write a lovable narrator

Narrators don’t have to be easy to love, and they may be hard to like. But in this case, To Kill a Mockingbird has sold tens of millions of copies and is called “One of the best-loved stories of all time” because readers like spending time with Scout. She’s at the center of the story, but she’s not self-centered, any more than a child is naturally. “It was plain that Aunty thought me dull in the extreme, because I once heard her tell Atticus that I was sluggish.” She’s curious, feisty, and forgiving. “Yeah Walter, I won’t jump on you again. Don’t you like butterbeans? Our Cal’s a real good cook.” She’s humble enough to wear a ham costume in public—”Jem said I looked exactly like a ham with legs. There were several discomforts, though: it was hot, it was a close fit; if my nose itched I couldn’t scratch, and once inside I could not get out of it alone.” (This description sets up her inability to escape in the subsequent scene where she’s accosted while walking home wearing the costume.) She’s brave enough to take the arm of a man whom she’s been terrified of for years—”Mr. Arthur, bend your arm down her, like that. That’s right, sir.” She makes sense of the world, as much as can be made, for her in her time and for us in ours.