The protagonist of this book is Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, a twenty-six-year-old woman from Maycomb, Alabama. At the beginning of the novel, Jean Louise is on a train from New York City to Maycomb Junction for her annual trip home. She usually flies, but this time, she wanted to spare her father, Atticus Finch, the inconvenience of driving over a hundred miles to pick her up. Jean Louise reminisces about a long-departed, insane relative, Cousin Joshua, who fancied himself a great poet.
Maycomb is such a small, sleepy town that Jean Louise has to remind the conductor not to forget to let her off the train. She gets off at Maycomb Junction, which is actually twenty miles away. Maycomb County is strangely shaped because of political gerrymandering, and it is so cut off from the rest of the South that some of its oldest citizens still vote Republican, even ninety years after the Civil War, when the entire rest of the South votes Democrat.
When the train pulls into Maycomb Junction, Jean Louise expects Atticus to be waiting there for her, but he is not. Instead, Henry Clinton, her lifelong childhood friend and now suitor, appears and kisses her. Henry tells Jean Louise that Atticus’s arthritis is bothering him, so he drives her home instead.
Henry had been best friends with Jean Louise’s older brother, Jem. When Jem suddenly dropped dead of a heart condition, Atticus hired Henry to become his junior associate at his law practice. Although Henry treats Atticus like a father, he treats Jean Louise like a lover. Even though Henry only gets to see Jean Louise for two weeks every year, they date whenever she is home, and he is convinced that they are going to get married. Jean Louise isn’t so sure. She tells Henry that she wants to have an affair with him, but not marry him. When Henry gets hurt, she apologizes, and they back off the subject, teasing and flirting with each other more lightly.
Atticus has problems physically because of his arthritis, but he is still very sharp mentally. When Jean Louise and Henry arrive, Atticus and his sister, Alexandra Finch Hancock, greet them. Alexandra and Jean Louise have always bickered constantly, and they both have short fuses. They gossip about people in town. Alexandra criticizes Jean Louise’s outfit because Jean Louise is wearing casual slacks, and Jean Louise starts to snap at her, when Atticus stops her. Jean Louise asks Atticus about his arthritis, and Atticus tells her that it’s none of her business. They briefly discuss politics, and the NAACP as well as the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education are brought up, but the conversation moves away from these issues.
Alexandra is a very imposing, opinionated figure, and she and Jean Louise have butted heads since Jean Louise’s childhood. When Jean Louise comes home to visit, she and Alexandra continue to disagree about everything. Although Alexandra is still technically married, her husband moved out to his fishing camp fifteen years ago and has never returned. Alexandra doesn’t care that her husband has gone, and she maintains her prominent position in Maycomb society. When Jem died, Alexandra told Jean Louise that Atticus needed her to stay at home and take care of him. Jean Louise argued that Atticus would want her to follow her ambitions, and Alexandra told her that she was being thoughtless. Now that Atticus’s arthritis has gotten worse, Alexandra has moved in with Atticus, and Jean Louise is secretly grateful.