There is a wonderful article published by PBS that combines a selection of reviews written about the novel To Kill a Mockingbird at the time of its publication in the year 1960.
The one thing upon which reviewers seem to agree is their love for the simplicity of the language that permeates the entire novel. The story is told from the perspective of a child who is coming of age in a time of social unrest and historical turmoil.
There is power in the honest manner in which the author interprets the thoughts of a typical American youth who is witnessing some of the most inhumane acts committed against another citizen based solely on the color of his skin.
Lee selects a style that matches its narrator: curious, transparent, simple, and loaded with powerful social commentary. All the while, she does all this by filtering a heavy subject through the eyes of a really observant child who is merely six years old at the time the novel begins.
These qualities comprise just a small part of what made this novel so unique that it earned it the Nobel Prize for Literature.
The Mobile [Alabama] Press Register wrote:
[it is] a wonderfully absorbing story, unencumbered ... by gimmicks ... which are supposed to be the only things that sell fiction today ... a good and readable novel has been written.
This shows that part of the admiration the novel received was because of the sincerity of its language and its simplicity. It came with zero thrills or tricks. It simply told the story of a realistic situation happening in a place which could be Anytown, USA.
A review by George McMichael, of The San Francisco Chronicle, supports this statement by stating:
Harper Lee has wisely and effectively employed the piercing accuracy of a child’s unalloyed vision of the adult world, to display the workings of a tragedy-laden region that little understands itself—or rarely seeks to.
In other words, reviewers were quite impressed by Lee's technique of mentally channeling a young child (Lee was around thirty-four at the time the novel was published) to express her message of social tolerance and her indignation at the way things were happening in places just like Maycomb in the real world.
The Register's review shows an appreciation for the way the novel opens a window into the realities of both the North and the South, and the manner in which the narrative unveils the potential of all people to be exactly how they choose to be:
small towns everywhere, North and South, are made up of many ordinary people; some mighty peculiar ones; a small minority who are worthless and even dangerous, and a scattering, happily, of outstanding good and even great persons.
In other words, the narrative of To Kill a Mockingbird shows a simple principle, spoken in easily understandable language: Right now, in every single town in America, people you can choose to be a social asset, such as the Finch family, or a social nuisance, such as the Ewell family. They both coexist in the same world. It is just a matter of which role we choose to play in life.
The beauty of this dichotomy is that Lee is able to explore both possibilities and present them with the same amount of detail. Yet, even more extraordinarily, she accomplishes this formidable task through the eyes of a six- or seven-year-old without diminishing the power of the message or diluting the importance of every spoken word. Add to this the complexity of other characters that Lee also creates and crafts to perfection:
- Atticus Finch is the town's hero and, essentially, the glue that binds the town together.
- Calpurnia, the Finches’ servant, is a black woman of limited academic background who compensates for this limitation with a tremendous richness of character, personality, and social awareness. She is the physical and moral force that keeps the Finch family strong.
- Tom Robinson is the victim of a racist and prejudiced society.
- The Ewells are as nerve-wracking as they are lost in their own chaos. Lee creates a wonderful interpretation of the traditional town misfits: “Every town the size of Maycomb had families like the Ewells. No economic fluctuations changed their status—people like the Ewells lived as guests of the county in prosperity as well as in the depths of a depression.”
All this is great even without including the other secondary characters who are equally powerful and complex, ranging from Dill to Aunt Alexandra and others.
To be able to craft such strong characters, tell their stories, and still carry the novel perfectly well through the eyes of Scout is, indeed, quite impressive!