Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird begins at the end. The novel opens with the adult Jean Louise "Scout" Finch writing, "When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow." By the time Jem finally gets around to breaking his arm more than 250 pages later most readers will have forgotten they were ever warned. This echoes the way the whole book unfolds-in no special hurry, with lifelike indirection. Nothing happens all by itself. The book's two plots inch forward along parallel tracks, only converging near the end.
The first plot revolves around Arthur "Boo" Radley, who lives in a shuttered house down the street from the Finches and is rumored to be some kind of monster. Scout, Jem, and their next-door neighbor Dill engage in pranks, trying to make Boo show himself. Unexpectedly, Boo reciprocates their interest with a series of small gifts, until he ultimately steps off his porch and into their lives when they need him most.
The second story concerns Scout and Jem's father, the attorney Atticus Finch. The local judge appoints him to defend a black man, Tom Robinson, who is falsely accused of raping a white woman. Atticus suspects he will lose the case, but he faces up to the challenge just the same, at one point heroically stepping between his client and a lynch mob.
Along with its twin plot lines, To Kill a Mockingbird has two broad themes: tolerance and justice. Lee treats the first through the children's fear of their mysterious neighbor. She illustrates the second with Atticus's courage in defending Robinson to the best of his ability, despite the racial prejudices of their small Southern town.
Tying the stories together is a simple but profound piece of advice Atticus gives Scout: "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it." By the end of the novel, Scout has done exactly that-guessed at the pain not only beneath Tom Robinson's skin, but also under that of her neighbor.
Harper Lee (Bettmann/Corbis)
A segregated drinking fountain in the Jim Crow South (Bettmann/Corbis)
Mary Badham and Gregory Peck review the script on the set of the film To Kill a Mockingbird, 1962. (Universal Studios/Getty Images)