AL.com's Red Clay Readers, in partnership with the Alabama Center for Literary Arts, is a book club designed to take a fresh look at a southern classic with the help of our readers. Today we look at Chapters 9 and 10 of "To Kill a Mockingbird."
Some Red Clay Readers admit they can't remember when they first read Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird." I'm in the same boat. I know I read the book before I moved from Louisiana to Alabama in 1977. It informed part of my expectations of what I'd find in Alabama: Kind, hard-working folks (and a few not-so-hardworking or kind, like anywhere), small-town life (I first lived in Cullman), football and, of course, the legacy of institutionalized racism and injustice.
After the late Ron Casey, Harold Jackson and I won the Pulitzer Prize in editorial writing in 1991, I tried very hard to get an interview with Lee, who shuns the media. She shunned me as well and, according to the friend who was trying to set up the interview for me, she did so with some very spicy language. Being in the Pulitzer Prize club didn't impress Harper Lee one bit.
I secured an early edition of "To Kill a Mockingbird" and carried it with me to the Pulitzer Prize ceremony at Columbia University in New York City that fall. It was the 75th anniversary of the Pulitzers, and all living Pulitzer Prize winners were invited to attend the ceremony and reception that followed. I viewed it an opportunity to get a Harper Lee autograph on my book but, alas, she was a no-show. A few years later, a friend picked up an autographed copy of the book for me (Lee's name signed to a book plate stuck on the title page). Still, I had my autograph, if not my interview.
"To Kill a Mockingbird" is an amazing novel, but we all know that. It's among my top 5 and might be No. 1, depending on the day and what I'm reading at the time. I rarely pick up the book that I don't end up reading huge chunks over again, and I've completed it from cover to cover at least half a dozen times. (If there were a Kindle edition, I'd read it even more often, but that's another conversation.)
Harper Lee's magic with words and the life-lessons she weaves remain fresh to me, even 54 years on.
Chapters 9 and 10
Two of the novel's key drivers are in these two chapters, where we see Scout determined to defend Atticus' honor with her fists at almost every turn when people call him names after he agreed to defend Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman.
Scout tries mightily to refrain after being coached by Atticus. She really does.
But she fails when her cousin Francis crosses the line. Scout's Uncle Jack punishes Scout without getting her side of the story, and then it's Scout who gets the chance to teach an adult.
"You're real nice, Uncle Jack, an' I reckon I love you even after what you did, but you don't understand children much," Scout tells him, and then she proceeds to point out that Atticus listens to both sides of the story when she and Jem get in a fuss.
At the end of Chapter 9, as Scout eavesdrops on a conversation between Atticus and Jack, the reader senses Scout's respect and admiration for her father blossoming, even moreso when Scout learns Atticus knew she was listening.
That sometimes grudging, but growing respect continues building momentum in Chapter 10, where we learn the root of the book's title.
Jem and Scout receive air-guns for Christmas, and Atticus says he prefers Jem shoot tin cans in the back yard, but he knows Jem will go after birds.
"Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit 'em," Atticus instructs, "but remember it's a sin to kill a mockingbird." Later, Miss Maudie tells Scout that her father is correct, because mockingbirds "don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us."
It's another animal, though, that bolsters Jem's and Scout's deep admiration for their father. Tim Johnson, the "liver-colored bird dog, the pet of Maycomb," was acting strangely. Indeed, Tim has rabies, a serious problem in dogs and cats in Alabama through the early 1960s, when aggressive rabies vaccination programs started and cases of the disease declined.
While the state Department of Public Health has no hard statistics for the 1930s, Dr. Lee Jones, the state public health veterinarian and the expert on rabies with the health department, said "there's no reason to expect it was any different" in the '30s or '40s than it was in the 1950s and early 1960s, from which the state does have records. Those records show more than 500 cases of rabies in dogs in 1953 alone. Years with more than 300 to more than 700 total rabies cases across species weren't unusual.
By 1963, two years after Lee won her Pulitzer Prize, there were only five cases of rabies in dogs.
In "To Kill a Mockingbird," as Tim Johnson walks erratically down the street toward Jem and Scout, housekeeper Calpurnia calls Atticus. When Atticus and Sheriff Heck Tate arrive, the mad dog is nearing the Radley's house at a slow, sickly pace. Tate gets his rifle, but then throws it to Atticus, the sheriff admitting to be a lousy shot. What Scout and Jem don't know, however, is that their father was once the best shot in Maycomb County: Ol' One-Shot was his nickname when he was a boy.
As proud as Jem and Scout are of their father's marksmanship, it's Jem who is really impressed because Atticus never told his children; their father is not boastful. He's a gentleman, "just like me!" says Jem.
And as hard as it might have been for readers to "watch" the kindly Atticus Finch shoot a neighborhood dog, it was the right decision.
Rabies is a deadly disease, and once symptoms start, there is no cure, even today.
In the scenario described by Harper Lee, Atticus Finch took exactly the right action, said Dr. Jones. "You are protecting other people by doing that," Jones said. "The dog needs to be destroyed."
Today, Jones said, rarely would one see a rabid dog walking down a street in the United States. "Today, it would be a raccoon," said Jones. "So there's still a risk."
But in Jem's and Scout's day, rabies was not uncommon in dogs and cats. Maycomb is lucky Ol' One-Shot showed up when he did.
What were your impressions of chapters 9 and 10? Did I miss anything? If you're reading it again, are you learning anything new? Share in the comments below.