Saturday, July 24, 2010

To Kill a Mockingbird: Miss Maudie's Courage

On an icy night, rare in Maycomb, Alabama, Miss Maudie’s house burns down during an era when fire departments did not have today's modern efficiency or efficacy. One proof is the danger that Miss Maudie’s home presents to other homes. In fact, even though Miss Maudie Atkinson’s home is across the street from Atticus Finch’s, the family—indeed all the families nearby—must evacuate because the night wind may carry a spark. In those days, when fewer corners were equipped with fire plugs to access water supplies and fewer building materials were resistant to fire, entire neighborhoods could become ash by morning.

As Miss Maudie’s house burns, Scout and Mr. Avery fret about property. Scout worries that her copy of a Tom Swift book, borrowed from Dill, will burn. Jem reassures her by directing her attention to Atticus who stands with his neighbors, his attention away from his own home. Jem tells Scout that “it ain’t time to worry yet” and thus, Atticus serves again as a model for courage: remaining calm in the face of catastrophe.

Mr. Avery is less calm. He rushes into Miss Maudie’s burning house to save what he can. He pushes a mattress and furniture out a second-story window, one that proves too small for Mr. Avery’s girth when the men below finally convince him to flee. Scout buries her face in her hands until Jem, keeping watch for both of them, tells her that Mr. Avery is safe. Scout looks up to see him coming across the front porch.

As Scout continues to watch Miss Maudie’s house burn, someone tenderly drapes a blanket over her shoulders to help her stay warm. That someone is, of course, the dreaded neighbor, Boo Radley, a gentle recluse whom the children fear beyond all reason. They have only heard the town tale about Boo stabbing his daddy in the leg with a pair of scissors; they conclude that Boo is some sort of monster—except that he is not.

On the night that Miss Maudie’s house burns, Jem confesses to all the kindnesses that Boo has done them: the soap dolls sculpted to resemble Jem and Miss Jean Louise, the school medal, and his pants, mended and neatly folded, draped across the fence that Jem, Dill and Scout ignored to enter the Radley yard uninvited. Jem explodes with his newly acquired understanding that Boo is not a threat, only a neighbor. Jem will not fully appreciate this truth until Boo saves his life, proving that he has courage of his own.

On the night that Miss Maudie’s house burns, she reveals her own brand of courage, one that many of us could emulate. Miss Maudie refuses to feel sorry for herself because she lost a home. By morning, after a night alone with her thoughts, Miss Maudie emerges with smiles and laughter and plans for a smaller home, more azaleas, more for her rivals to envy. She views her loss as an opportunity, not an insurmountable hurdle. She has faith in herself and a belief in a brighter future—not unlike any man or woman in uniform.