Catch up on parts 1 — 3 of BloggingTo Kill a Mockingbirdhere!
Scout is the rough-and-tumble sort of tomboy that I never was, but wanted to be. I climbed a tree or two in my time and ate dirt or whatever, but this just wasn’t the kind of mischief I could commit myself to with any regularity. Mostly I stayed inside and played Frogger.
Scout, however, spends much of the summer with Jem and Dill. You know, rolling around in tires, playing “the Boo Radley game,” eating candy she finds in tree holes, that kind of thing. Until chapter 5, that is. That’s when Jem and Dill more or less abandon her. They exclude her from their schemes and neglect to invite her along on their jaunts.
This abrupt “NO GIRLS ALLOWED” policy will be familiar to anyone who has ever been a little sister. I myself was a big sister, but I lived in a neighborhood populated exclusively by ten-year-old boys, so I devoted huge chunks of my time to 1) throwing rocks off of things, 2) pretending I liked the Power Rangers, and 3) sometimes just being totally, completely ignored. So I played Frogger.
To deal with this, Scout decides to look for new cohorts. So who does she befriend? A classmate? A teacher? A stuffed tiger? No. Instead, she attaches herself to the aging neighborhood widow. Miss Maudie is a brazen, no-nonsense sort of lady (think Olenna Tyrell meets Minerva McGonagall) who is super old and makes good cakes, so I can appreciate Scout’s thinking.
“Miss Maudie hated her house,” Scout explains to us. “Time spend indoors was time wasted.” I have never read a sentence to which “can’t relate” was more applicable. I hate the outdoors. I can’t help it. I’m allergic to pollen so every time I leave the house between March and October, my body rejects it out of hand. Miss Maudie, however, likes to garden. She plants flowers and wears overalls and probably knows what loam is.
But Miss Maudie doesn’t just sit around pulling weeds and knowing what loam is; occasionally she also moves the storyline forward. One day Scout decides to ask her if she thinks Boo Radley is still alive. Miss Maudie tells Scout to call him by his name, which is apparently Arthur, and says she knows he’s alive because she hasn’t “seen him carried out yet.” Fair play.
Miss Maudie knew Boo when he was a boy and describes him as a nice kid who grew up in a terrible home. This unfortunate backstory, far from meaning Boo would one day grow up to defeat a Dark wizard, mostly just prompted him to retreat inside his house forever. I feel that. I mean, it’s not like I had a super conservative, vaguely abusive Baptist father like Boo did, but one time a movie usher said “Enjoy your movie” and I hit him with a “You too” and I briefly considered just never leaving the house again, so I get it.
When Scout asks Miss Maudie if she thinks Boo is crazy, Miss Maudie says, “If he’s not, he should be by now.”
With this disturbing nugget of information freshly in mind, Scout discovers that Jem and Dill are hatching a plan to coax Boo out of his house. She tries to dissuade them from this reckless course of action—after all, Boo has had a hard life and is a possible lunatic—but Jem and Dill are agents of anarchy, hell-bent on their own destruction. They proceed to slip a note to Boo through a window via fishing pole. Or, well, they would have done, but Atticus catches them in the act and tells them, for the last time, to leave Boo Radley alone.
Which they do, for all of five seconds. In chapter 6, they set out to peep in one of the Radleys’ windows. As usual, Scout is reluctant to play along but doesn’t argue lest Jem call her a girl, which, as an insult, is less demeaning than it is factual.
As plans go, this one’s not great. Essentially what they have, strategy-wise, is “Step 1: snoop around the property” and “Step 2: just hope something happens.” The something that happens is that Mr. Nathan Radley, who is inside the house, walks past the window near where Jem is crouched on the porch. Mr. Radley doesn’t see them, but his presence casts a large and ominous shadow that scares the pants off of (this joke will be funny later, I swear) everyone involved.
The three of them run for it. Suddenly, the sound of shotgun fire rings out in the night.
Okay, pause. When I was a kid, between all that dirt-eating and tree-climbing, we sometimes had occasion to play ding-dong ditch, the artful childhood pastime of ringing someone’s doorbell for no reason other than chaos. The worst that ever happened was that the neighbors sometimes called our parents. Once, an elderly lady let her out equally elderly chihuahua and it barked at us. The stakes were not NEARLY THIS HIGH, is what I’m saying, and yet Scout, Jem, and Dill are just like, “Yep, this is a Tuesday.”
I mean, they’re scared, sure, but they’re not rocking back and forth in a puddle of their own urine, which is what I would be doing. The height of the tension is when Jem gets caught in a fence and has to leave behind his pants. (I told you that joke would pay off!)
Now safe from danger, the three of them join the growing crowd in front of the Radleys’ house, trying to look innocent. They ask what all the commotion is about, and Miss Maudie says Mr. Radley shot at “a Negro.” Miss Stephanie Crawford, the town gossip, says that next time there’s a disturbance in his yard, Mr. Radley won’t hesitate. Atticus breaks up this nonchalant dehumanization of an entire race by asking Jem, “Where’re your pants, son?”
Dill, a talented liar, makes up some story about winning the pants from Jem in a game of strip poker. This is sufficient. Still, it poses a problem when Atticus orders Dill to give the pants back. Faced with the prospect of getting into trouble the next morning due to his continued lack of pants, Jem decides to sneak out at midnight and retrieve them. Scout tries to talk him out of it. I’m with her on this. Jem has no semblance of priorities. The boy would rather get shot by Nathan Radley than disappoint his father. JEM, LOOK, DISAPPOINTING YOUR PARENTS IS NOT THAT BAD, REALLY. I do it constantly! You get used to it!
Scout becomes increasingly nervous as she waits in their bedroom for Jem. She listens for the sound of gunfire, but it doesn’t come. Eventually, Jem returns. She can finally breathe easy, and even though I have read this chapter half a dozen of times, so can I.
“There are just some kind of men who—who’re so busy worrying about the next world they’ve never learned to live in this one, and you can look down the street and see the results.”
THIS AND THAT
Nathan Radley’s intention to shoot “a Negro” in his yard as readily as he would shoot a stray dog (combined with everyone else’s complicit understanding that this is a apparently an acceptable thing to do) is but one of the many disturbing ways casual, violent racism rears its ugly head.
Even sympathetic characters like Miss Maudie (as well as Scout) are prone to racial microaggressions. When Scout mentions some of the urban legends surrounding Boo Radley, Miss Maudie says dismissively, “That is three-fourths colored folks and one-fourth Stephanie Crawford.” Earlier, Scout makes the same disparaging comment about supernatural phenomenon known as “Hot Steams,” attributing it to “colored folks.” We’ll talk more about this later (particularly when we get to Tom Robinson and the characterization of Calpurnia), I’m just preparing you for HEAVY THEMES and HARSH TRUTHS.
OH, AND ALSO, Dill proposed marriage to Scout. Just as well that I forgot to mention it, because Dill seems to have forgotten about it, too. However, before he returns to Mississippi at the end of chapter 6, he kisses Scout goodbye. So there’s that.