Christopher Paul Curtis is angry. He's angry about the suffering that Americans experienced during the Great Depression - especially the disproportionate suffering endured by African-Americans and children. He is even angrier about the number of children living in poverty today - "the estimated fifteen million American children who are poor, who go to bed hungry and whose parents struggle to make a dignified living to feed and care for them," as he states in the afterword.
I am angry about those things too. As a librarian, albeit one who doesn't work directly with children, I hear heartbreaking stories every day about the children and families living in my impoverished region of Maryland. As a librarian, I also know that righteous anger can fuel the creative process. It has produced some of my favorite books: Oliver Twist (and most of Dickens, come to that). Jane Eyre. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. In each of those cases, though, the anger is the energy that fuels a really, really great story.
This is not the case, I'm sorry to say, for The Mighty Miss Malone.
As I summed it up on Facebook, this is a collection of really good sentences that don't add up to a great novel. The sentence level writing is of Curtis's usual caliber: superb. There are searing, gut-wrenching passages in this book: the overheard conversation about Deza's rotting teeth. The letter from Mrs. Malone's former employer. The description of the poorhouse, the way Deza's teachers treat her, Deza's voice (both inner and outer), etc., etc... All glorious.
Without a strong story to string them together, however, these scenes are nothing more than vignettes, and The Mighty Miss Malone is at its weakest in the area of plot. In the hands of a writer of Curtis's caliber, the transitions shouldn't be so abrupt that I find myself flipping back a few pages to see if I missed something. I kept waiting for the story to lead somewhere - to follow any kind of recognizable plot arc - but it just kept picking up threads of narrative and then letting them fall. I understand that this may have been a deliberate choice, given the fragmented lives of many families during the Depression. Still, there are ways to thematically unify even a fragmented narrative, and it doesn't happen here.
If there is a theme to The Mighty Miss Malone, it is the family motto: "We are a family on a journey to a place called Wonderful." I think Curtis intended to show the reader that love holds a family together even in the direst of circumstances. The problem is that I just didn't believe it in this case, and I don't think that Curtis did either. The entire tone of the novel works against it. By the time the motto is repeated at the end of the book, it is impossible to read it as anything but bitter irony.
This is Curtis's first novel with a female protagonist, and Deza Malone is a memorable one. I just wish she'd been given a story more worthy of her.
By the way, if, like me, you couldn't remember the scene where Deza Malone appears in Bud, Not Buddy, Richie Partington kindly supplies it in his (much more positive) review.
Wendy Lamb Books, January 2012