The book covers a pivotal few years in Jem's life, between the ages of roughly 10 and 13. Those are some pretty formative years for anyone, but the things that Jem sees set the course for the rest of his life.
At the beginning of the book, Jem is a pretty typical 10-year-old. He likes to play and he's curious about Boo Radley, the neighbor who never comes out of his house. He's not aware enough of the outside world yet to realize that some of his actions, like playing about Boo's life, might hurt Boo's feelings if he realized what was going on. That slowly changes though.
He's always pretty patient with Scout, a precocious younger sister who would try almost anyone's patience. He gets frustrated with her at times, but overall, they play well together and she looks up to him. He generally explains things so that she can understand them. As he gets older, he starts to condescend to her a little bit, which she resents, but even then he seems to be genuinely trying to teach her what he's learned about life.
***SPOILERS (highlight the section below to read them)***
By the summer and fall at the end of the book, Jem has reached a growth spurt, both physically and mentally. He's keenly interested in Tom Robinson's trial. To Atticus's everlasting credit, Jem doesn't see the trial as being about a black man and a white woman, but about whether or not a man--of any race--is guilty. He follows every move his father makes in the trial and reaches the same conclusions as his father. He is crushed when the verdict is Guilty. He knows that Tom is innocent, and he knows that, deep down, the jury knows. He can't wrap his head around the idea that a jury would still convict a man of a capital offense just because of the color of his skin.
At the end of the book, Jem is positively manly, in the very best sense of the word. He takes his little sister to the Halloween pageant and even carries her unwieldy ham costume for her. When he realizes that someone is following them with more than just Halloween trickery on his mind, his first instinct is to push Scout ahead of him and try to get her home. When they're attacked, he fights fiercely with his attacker, trying to protect her. When he breaks free and Scout is still there, he starts dragging her home. He doesn't want to fight anymore, he just wants to get his little sister to safety. When Scout is attacked and someone pulls the attacker off her, Scout just knows that Jem is helping her. She has that much faith in her big brother. He was willing to literally die to protect his sister. I think I just developed a crush on the man that Jem will become.
I don't know how I've overlooked Jem all these years. I guess because he isn't the narrator and he's too young to shine in Atticus's shadow, he just got by me. This is one of the reasons I enjoy re-reading favorite books; I always pick up new things on every re-read. I'm glad Jem finally caught my attention this time.
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