Two Newbery Medal-winning books stand miles above the rest in terms of being well-written, and one of them is M. C. Higgins, the Great. (The other is Dicey's Song, which you can read about here.) Virginia Hamilton's eerie, strange, beautiful novel of hill-people in the Appalachian Mountains of Eastern Kentucky reads like something between poetry and a dream sequence.
The story is difficult to distill to a few paragraphs because nothing is without meaning, and nothing is unattached. At one point, M. C. (short for Mayo Cornelius) ends up at the compound of the "witchy" Killburns and sees all the kids playing on what looks like a giant spiderweb of ropes, which in turn is a metaphor for the interconnectedness of life in the mountains.
M. C. Higgins, the Great is 13 years old with the woodlore of a much older man. He spends his days running through the woods, tracking animals, hunting rabbits, swinging on vines, and spending time with Ben Killburn. Ben is one of the witchy people, and while M. C.'s father, Jones, hates the Killburns from fear, M. C. is more ambivalent, and considers Ben his friend.
One day, Ben tells M. C. about a dude with a tape recorder who's been walking through the mountains and recording the old songs of their inhabitants to preserve for future generations. M. C. gets it in his head that the man will hear his mother Banina, whose singing voice is legendary, and make her a star.
His desire for this isn't rooted so much in a desire for fame or wealth, as in his fear that the spoil will destroy the outcropping on which his family lives, and their need to leave before that happens. The spoil is a huge slag pile left over from strip-mining, and the hill people live in constant fear that it will dislodge and wipe out the entire mountainside.
The mountainside in question belong's to Sarah's Mountain, so named for M. C.'s great-grandmother Sarah who first came there as a fugitive slave. The Higginses have lived there ever since, possessing the land, burying each family member as they die right there in the yard of the house. But there are no gravestones; there's only a bunch of rusted car parts, and a 40-foot-pole.
M. C. won the pole from his daddy after swimming the Ohio River, and he sits on top of it, bending it backwards and forwards and surveying the surrounding hills and forests. From there he watches the tape recorder dude, James K. Lewis, struggle over the mountains. He watches the spoil. He watches his siblings play in the lake. And he watches Lurhetta Outlaw, a teenaged girl a little older than him, camping in the wilderness.
This is all set-up. The real plot revolves around M. C.'s relationship with his father, Jones, which is filled with resentment and fear for not moving his family off the mountain and out of harm's way; M. C.'s relationship with Mr. Lewis, on whom he's hung so many hopes; M. C.'s relationship with Ben and the Killburns, who he thinks are crazy and revolting and nice; and M. C.'s relationship with Lurhetta, who lives unattached and alone.
Like many novels by and about African Americans,M. C. Higgins, the Greatis about freedom. Unlike most of those novels, however, Hamilton's isn't about racism or slavery. It's about living in bondage to the past, cut off from other people for fear of their differences, wanting escape so much that not needing it seems like a doom worse than death.
One of the central moments of the novel comes when Banina tells M. C. that his pole wasn't just a gift for him, that she made Jones put away all the gravestones of his people when she came to the mountain with him and that he sees the pole as a new kind of marker for the dead. The past is stronger in Jones than the present or future, she seems to imply.
Another important moment is when Ben takes Lurhetta and M. C. to his family's compound. It's implied there's inbreeding (if for no other reason: the Killburn men have six fingers on each hand and six toes on each foot), and their manner of life is certainly strange. But Lurhetta accepts the Killburns with grace and joy, while M. C. is bound by generations-old fear and prejudice.
This novel is as divided as the people in it. At times it feels like a primitive fantasy, as though nothing exists beyond the hills and forests of Appalachian Kentucky. At others its realism is jarring, like Hamilton's descriptions of the Higgins house, or the Killburn compound, or skinning a rabbit. People come and go like ghosts in a ghostly landscape, but the spoil and the mountains and M. C. Higgins are real and tangible.
A review like this can't convey the depth and weight and beauty of this book. Hamilton's novel is a masterpiece, and not just in the realm of children's literature (whatever that is)—this is worthy reading for middle schoolers, high schoolers, college students, professors, electricians, mothers, and basketball players. Anyone, that is, who loves life more than death, and freedom more than the slavery to which we so often assign ourselves.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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