Jean Louise Finch arrives in Maycomb, Alabama, traveling from New York City for her annual two-week visit home. Jean Louise’s father, Atticus Finch, is a prominent lawyer in town. Over the past few years, he has been suffering from arthritis, so his sister, Alexandra Finch, now lives with him. Jean Louise’s older brother, Jem, died of a sudden heart condition a few years ago when he was only in his early twenties.
Jean Louise reconnects with Henry “Hank” Clinton, who works in Atticus’s law office. Henry was Jem’s childhood best friend, and he and Jean Louise have been a couple for several years, but Jean Louise won’t commit to marrying him. Henry and Jean Louise visit Jean Louise’s ancestral home, where they go swimming late at night. Jean Louise has flashbacks to her childhood with Jem and her childhood friend, Dill. She fondly remembers re-enacting scenes from both fiction and reality with them. On the way back to town, a car full of black people passes them, going extremely fast, and Henry says that the black people have enough money to buy cars, but they don’t have licenses and insurance.
The next morning, Henry and Jean Louise’s trip has made the rounds of the town gossip, which scandalizes Alexandra, but Jean Louise and Atticus are mildly amused. The whole family goes to church, where the music director tries to conduct a hymn in a different rhythm, but the townspeople sing it exactly the way they’ve always been singing it.
After church, Atticus and Henry leave for a political meeting. Jean Louise finds a racist pamphlet titled “The Black Plague” among Atticus’s papers, and she is horrified. She follows Atticus and Henry to their meeting, which turns out to be a gathering of the Maycomb County Citizen’s Council, an organization promoting segregation and white supremacy. Nearly all the men in town are there, except Uncle Jack. The meeting is in the courthouse, and Jean Louise watches it from the same place where she and Jem sat as children to watch their father defend a black man who was on trial for rape. Then, Jean Louise was proud of her father for standing up for what was right. Now, Jean Louise is disgusted that her father can be part of something so racist. Jean Louise leaves and walks around town, feeling sickened and betrayed, and has flashbacks to her youth, in which Atticus had always been her rock-solid moral compass. Jean Louise also remembers Calpurnia, the black woman who had served as the Finches’ cook and a surrogate mother figure.
The next morning, the family learns that Calpurnia’s grandson had killed a pedestrian while speeding in his car. Atticus takes the case, but only to stop the NAACP from coming to town and getting involved. Jean Louise visits Calpurnia, but Calpurnia treats her politely and coldly, without a hint of affection. Jean Louise has lunch with Uncle Jack and asks him how Atticus could allow himself to be involved with a racist organization. Uncle Jack tries to explain that Atticus himself isn’t necessarily a racist, but he has to maintain appearances to the townspeople, and he has to understand what they’re up to (think “Know thy enemy”). Uncle Jack is trying to plant the seed for Jean Louise to come to a conclusion, but she doesn’t quite grasp what he’s trying to make her understand.
Jean Louise has a flashback to her adolescence, recalling the time that she and Henry went together to a dance. This was the first time that Jean Louise really began to feel like she was becoming a woman, not just a child or Jem’s little sister. The next day, the school principal found Jean Louise’s false bosoms, which had fallen during the night. Henry comes up with a scheme to save the day, and it later turns out that Atticus had had the idea but had planted the seed of it in Henry’s mind.
Jean Louise has coffee with Henry and tells him that she can never marry him. As she yells at Henry for being a hypocrite, she realizes that Atticus is standing right there. Jean Louise and Atticus go to his office, and they begin to argue about Brown v. Board of Education and the NAACP. Jean Louise is in favor of states’ rights, so she doesn’t entirely agree with the Supreme Court, but she argues that they had to do what was right morally, even if it might not have been the right decision politically. Atticus’s positions seem to go against everything he had taught her, and she lashes out at him.
Jean Louise goes home in a blinding rage to pack her things and leave. Uncle Jack comes over and slaps her. The slap shocks Jean Louise thoroughly, and she snaps out of her rage. He explains that Atticus is not an idol, but rather, is thoroughly human, and that Jean Louise has to rely on herself to be her own moral anchor. Jean Louise is chastened and decides to remain in Maycomb. She realizes that she won’t marry Henry. Jean Louise returns to the office to apologize to Atticus, but Atticus says that he is proud of her.