Chapter 1: To Kill a Mockingbird begins, "When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident. I maintain that the Ewells started it all, but Jem, who was four years my senior, said it started long before that. He said it began the summer Dill came to us, when Dill first gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out" (9). Only after one finishes Mockingbird does the significance of Jem's broken arm become apparent. How did it happen? Harper Lee refers to the subject only one other time at the end of the book, turning her attention instead to describing the setting and introducing her main characters. Through six-year old Scout, her narrator, Lee draws an affectionate and detailed portrait of Maycomb, Alabama, a small, sleepy, depression-era town. She writes, "People moved slowly then. They ambled across the square, shuffled in and out of stores around it, took their time about everything. A day was twenty-four hours long but seemed longer. There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy, and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County" (11).
In chapter one we meet Atticus, Scout's father, who left his home, Finch's Landing, down the river from Maycomb, to study law in Mobile, Alabama. Atticus returned to Maycomb to practice law and help his brother, Jack, through medical school. About Atticus, Scout relates, "He liked Maycomb, he was Maycomb County born and bred; he knew his people, and they knew him, and because of [his father's] industry, Atticus was related by blood or marriage to nearly every family in the town" (11). We meet Calpurnia, the Finch's housekeeper who Scout describes as "all angles and bones.her hand was wide as a bed slat and twice as hard" (12). Scout, opinionated and vocal, faced Calpurnia's discipline often. She tells us, "our battles were epic and one-sided. Calpurnia always won, mainly because Atticus always took her side" (12). Finally, we meet six-year old Dill a neighbor boy visiting for the summer from Meridian, Mississippi. Jem and Scout spot Dill hiding in a collard patch and proceed to interrogate him. Dill prides himself on his ability to read and impresses Jem by revealing that his mother entered him in a beautiful baby contest, won five dollars, and gave the winnings to Dill who used the money to visit the picture shows 20 times. Having passed Jem and Scout's tests, Dill quickly becomes the Finch children's best friend. The three playmates spend their time acting out scenes from their favorite books and dreaming about Boo Radley. "The Radley Place fascinated Dill. In spite of our warnings and explanations it drew him as the moon draws water, but drew him no nearer than the light-pole on the corner" (14).
Thus begins the fascination with Boo Radley. According to Maycomb lore and the children's vivid imaginations, Boo is a "malevolent phantom" (15) often blamed for the unexplained bad things that happened in town from time to time. Boo ran with the wrong gang when he was a kid and got into trouble one night. Instead of sending him to an asylum or locking him up in the courthouse jail, Boo's father took him home on the promise that Boo would cause no more trouble. Since then Boo remained shut in his house while rumors swirled about his mental state and his legend grew. Although Atticus urges the children to leave the Radley house, now occupied by Boo, his mother, and his brother, Nathan, Jem, Dill, and Scout succumb to their curiosity. The chapter ends with Dill daring Jem to run inside the Radley's fence and touch the house. Jem takes the dare.
Chapter 2: The summer has ended with Dill returning to Meridian and Scout starting her first day of school. Miss Caroline, Scout's first grade teacher, scolds Scout because she already knows how to read. "Your father does not know how to teach" (24) Miss Caroline pronounces of Atticus. She forbids Scout from reading with Atticus and begins the year upset with, perhaps, her smartest student. Miss Caroline is new to Maycomb so she doesn't know any of the students, their families, or their family's eccentricities. Determined to help her learn Maycomb's ways and egged on by her fellow students, Scout offers Miss Caroline pointers on how to get along with folks such as Walter Cunningham.
Miss Caroline offers a quarter to Walter (whose father's name is also Walter Cunningham) who did not bring a lunch to school with him. When Walter refuses to take the quarter but Miss Caroline insists, Scout interjects, ".you'll get to know all the county folks after a while. The Cunninghams never took anything they can't pay back-no church baskets and not scrip stamps. Thy never took anything off of anybody, they get along on what they have. They don't have much, but they get along on it" (27). As she was with the fact that Scout already reads, Miss Caroline is not pleased with Scout's imprudent behavior. Scout describes her reaction: "Miss Caroline stood stock still, then grabbed me by the collar and hauled me back to her desk. 'Jean Louis, I've had about enough of you this morning,' she said. 'You're starting out on the wrong foot in every way, my dear" (28). She pats Scout's hands with a ruler and sends Scout to stand in the corner. The chapter ends with Scout and her class filing out to lunch at the sound of the noon bell.