Although I’ve never been to the reenactment of Tom Robinson’s trial, I’ve been to the courthouse in Monroeville, AL, where it’s held. We drove by there from time to time when I was a kid, and the last time I drove by, I was leaving town after my grandmother’s funeral in 2012. I’ve seen remains of the homes of Truman Capote and Harper Lee. My mother grew up near Monroeville, and we’d make the 3 hour trip to her old home at Christmastime and for family reunions. The town was about the same size as the one I grew up in, but somehow it seemed even smaller, even sleepier. That it had been the home of two of the most celebrated Southern writers completely escaped my notice—for a time.
I’ve read the To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) at least half a dozen times since that first encounter with it when I was 16. Each time, it has had a profound impact. I’ve gone from wishing that Atticus Finch was my father to hoping for a father-figure like that for my own child. I’ve seen the injustices that still exist in the small town South. And I understand Scout, understand her in ways that are particular to the Southern sleepy towns in which we grew up.
Scout is the epitome of the Southern white tomboy. She’s been born and raised in small town Alabama, and her father is an important figure in the small town. She refuses to wear dresses. She fights–with boys, mostly. She learns to read and write at an early age–something that becomes vexing later, when she’s shut down at school because of what she already knows. Scout is also blunt and outspoken, and those are not hallmarks of a lady.
Scout’s mother died before she was old enough to remember her, though, and she was mostly raised by her father with help from their cook, Calpurnia (a complex figure both in novel and in criticism). We know little about Calpurnia, but she is a central figure in Scout’s life, a presence that has been in the home since older brother Jem’s birth, and the day that Jem and Scout attend church with Calpurnia, beginning to learn about the coded life she has to live, Scout starts to learn even more about the racialized caste system of her town. And when Tom Robinson is accused of raping Mayella Ewell and made to stand trial for the crime, Scout learns even more about this system–from the inhabitants of the town and from her father’s defense of the wrongly accused Tom, even though Atticus knows he’ll never win the court case.
The case captures the attention of the town–and Atticus Finch’s involvement in the case pulls in the rest of the family. Even the extended family–Scout’s aunt always insists on using the name Jean Louise, Scout’s given name, and she attempts to provide a feminine role model for Scout, going so far as to move in with the family. She insists that Scout stop wearing pants (she’s not supposed to do anything she can’t do in a dress), become “a ray of sunshine,” and play with “tea sets and small stoves.” Though Scout staunchly resists Aunt Alexandra’s attempt to make her a lady, she’s not completely immune to the way the town works, the way her world works, and she knows that as she grows older she must become a lady. By novel’s end, Scout is beginning to make peace with the gender roles required of her, and part of this is because she begins to see moments of grace in the ladies around her, like the moment that Aunt Alexandra is able to carry on after learning about Tom’s death, while Scout wants to sit and cry, be upset. But that isn’t ladylike–and “if Aunty can be a lady, so can I,” Scout thinks.
Part of Scout’s realizations are, of course, different because we’re reading Scout’s story in retrospect. And naturally, every character, every conversation, is filtered through the lens of Scout and the memories of Jean Louise. The adult Jean Louise “Scout” Finch is aware of the connections and learning moments that happen during this time. She’s aware of the impact of the ignorance, racism, and meanness of Bob Ewell; the constraints put upon Mayella Ewell, the white trash—but still white–woman who couldn’t openly admit to having seduced Tom; the honesty and integrity of Tom Robinson, and the tragedy of his execution; and most of all, she’s aware of the impact her father’s treatment of the entire situation impacted her. Atticus Finch taught her, as he did me. Perhaps he didn’t teach her how to be a Southern lady. But he did teach her not to give up on what you believe just because you know you’ll be beaten; he taught her to do what she can with what she has; he taught her about social responsibility even–and especially–in the midst of social injustice.
I remember stories that would mimic those told of Boo Radley, tales of town characters, and I remember the way that adults were hesitant to speak about such things in front of children; I remember the whispers, and I remember both of my grandmothers telling me family history that my parents would probably rather I not have been told. I remember climbing trees, and I remember hanging out with my next door neighbors and knowing everyone in town by name–and everyone knowing me, as my father was a banker and my mother a teacher. And I remember racism, the way the town still seemed divided years after the Civil Rights Movement, though it seemed mostly to be the older generation that held to those policies. I remember injustices, and I remember kindnesses. I remember the small town South. And I remember being an almost-tomboy.