James McBride and Rick Bragg read passages from To Kill a Mockingbird on how historical realities of Southern life affect the characters in the novel.
"When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed and Jem's fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury. His left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the back of his hand was at right angles to his body. He couldn't have cared less so long as he could pass and punt."
The interesting thing about this paragraph is that this sets up the whole book. It sets up the whole story. I reread this first passage to myself many times when I was writing The Color of Water. By speaking to the specific, the story of how her brother broke his arm, she speaks to the general problem of 400 years of racism, slavery, socioeconomic classism, the courage of the working class, the isolation of the South, the identity crises of a young girl, and the coming out of a neighborhood recluse. All that in the story of her brother, who when he was nearly 13, broke his arm.
"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."
And it's that one phrase, "said it started long before that," is—I don't know. Southern writers are always saying stuff to be profound, like that's the quintessentially Southern phrase. But the truth is, down here everything started long before that. That's just the way it is.