During the fall of 2011, Pendragon Theatre of Saranac Lake is to perform Harper Lee’s classic story, To Kill a Mockingbird, on a number of high school stages throughout the North Country. One way to prepare for the performance is, of course, to read the novel. However, another way to familiarize yourself with the story’s setting and conflicts is to visit the sites below. You’ll discover:
- what it was like to live during the Great Depression of the 1930s,
- the effects of Jim Crow laws,
- a famous example of racial injustice known as “the Scottsboro Incident” and the involvement of Ruby Bates,
- the murder of Emmett Till, and
- relevant details of Harper Lee’s childhood.
All of these components are background for watching the drama of Harper Lee’s novel. Although the story is not specifically about these events, they provide a base of understanding, and many of the story’s events bear a strong similarity to the actual events that you will discover in this webquest.
To Kill a Mockingbird is Harper Lee’s only novel, a childhood memoir based on the author’s early life in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, in 1935. However, the author alludes to a number of real, historical events and adapts those events to become the stage for this story. The narrator is Scout Finch (Jean Louise Finch), and the story covers three years of her life, from ages six to eight. She tells of her childhood from the perspective (and with the insight and vocabulary) of a grown woman, looking back forty years or so. The novel shows Scout discovering truths about her eccentric neighbors (including a mysterious recluse), experiencing 1930s-style education, dealing with the unfairness of the adult world, and watching prejudice destroy innocent lives.
The theme of To Kill a Mockingbird lies in this statement: “Too seldom do we adopt another person’s perspective (‘stand in someone’s shoes’) to try to understand people who are different from us.” She shows the value of this skill in a number of dramatic situations where characters face consequences for failing to “see” life through another person’s eyes. Let’s prepare for the play.
SETTING: Time - early 1930s
Site #1-a - The Great Depression - Fifty Interesting Facts
Site #1-b - Prices during the Depression - Compare what people paid for various items (and were paid in wages) in the 1930s to today’s dollar amounts.
SETTING: Location - southern Alabama
Site #1-c - Photographs from various Alabama counties during the Great Depression. (This links you to a page on the Library of Congress site, listing sub-directories by county. When you exhaust these, click “Next” for more Alabama counties, or click “New Search” to browse or search by photographer (“Creator”) or by geographic location.)
TASK - Select a number of images from a particular locality. Pretending to be a concerned citizen, use the photos as evidence to illustrate why the town should make certain changes. Address your presentation to the town council.
SETTING: Mood - open prejudice against people of color
Site #2 - Jim Crow Laws - Examples of the many areas of life affected by this series of racist laws
Site #3 - Photographs of signs blatantly denying rights to people of color
TASK - Put yourself in the position of a person of color, experiencing the effects of Jim Crow Laws, in the 1940s and ‘50s. Write a first-person narration that reveals how such laws may have complicated your life. Use photos from sites #2 and #3 to illustrate your story. [Be certain to use correct dialogue format (for paragraphing and punctuation) when writing conversations.]
PLOT: Art Imitates History
Site #4 - The Scottsboro Trial - A lengthy but horrifying account of justice miscarried by racism in a trial series that spanned decades and saw nine young boys and men repeatedly sentenced to death or life in prison for something that they did not do
TASK 1 - Put together a timeline of the ten or so most significant turning points in the series of trials, starting with the first arrest. Focus primarily on events that affected Haywood Patterson.
TASK 2 - Compare and contrast: based on this site, what distinct similarities can you find between the character, Mayella Ewell, and the real person, Ruby Bates? In what important ways are they different?
Site #5 - The Murder of Emmett Till - A Chicago youth meets tragedy in a race-fueled violent attack. Till’s innocently-intended words are a parallel to the words of Lee’s character, Tom Robinson, whose equally well-intended words led to tragic consequences due to racism.
TASK - Compare and contrast the events surrounding Till’s attack with the fictional events that affected Tom Robinson. Explain the irony surrounding both men’s fates.
Site #6 - Harper Lee - Background information on her life, much of which finds its way into To Kill a Mockingbird.
TASK - Watch especially for parallels between her father and the character, Atticus Finch. A close childhood friend who grew up to become American author, Truman Capote, inspired the character, Charles Baker Harris (Dill), in Lee’s novel. What personality traits do they seem to share? What other connections can you find between Harper Lee’s life and the characters and events of her novel?