Friday, July 22, 2016

Newbery Wayback Machine: M. C. Higgins, the Great, by Virginia Hamilton (1975)

Trying to figure out who the "greatest" American children's author of all time might be is an essentially impossible task. (Beverly Cleary? Dr. Seuss? Louis Sachar? Lloyd Alexander? E. B. White? Walter Dean Myers?) However, if the question is the "most decorated" American Children's author, the answer is almost certainly Virginia Hamilton. During her long career (she wrote 41 books in total), Hamilton won, in addition to the 1975 Newbery: three Newbery Honors; the Edgar Award (The House of Dies Drear, 1969); three Coretta Scott King Awards (Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush, 1983; The People Could Fly, 1986; Her Stories, 1996), and six CSK Honors; three Boston Globe-Horn Book awards (M.C. Higgins, The Great, 1975; Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush, 1983; Anthony Burns, 1988); the National Book Award (M.C. Higgins, the Great, 1975); the Hans Christian Andersen Award (1992); a MacArthur Fellowship (1995); the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal (1995); the de Grummond Medal (2001); and enough other awards to fill several cases.

As you can see from the above list, M.C. Higgins, the Great was THE children's book of the year when it came out. No book had ever won the Newbery, the National Book Award, and the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award before; indeed, only one other book since then has managed that trifecta (Sachar's Holes, in 1998-99). The novel tells the story of two days in the life of its title character, a thirteen-year-old who lives in the wild, rural hill country of northern Kentucky, during which he encounters a nomadic young woman, a Lomax-style collector of field recordings, and the "witchy" Killburn clan, who live on a nearly-inaccessible plateau hidden in the hills.

Two things stood out to me as I read my way through M.C. Higgins. The first was its surreal, bizarre imagery, which almost felt like it would belong in an all-Appalachian version of Un Chien Andalou. Hamilton stated that the book's genesis was not in the plot, but in the initial, arresting image of Higgins greeting the sunrise, arms outstretched, with lettuce leaves attached to the rubber bands around his wrists. From there, the book moves to show us Higgins, perched on top of a 40-foot metal pole surrounded by abandoned cars; Higgins and the young woman, Lurhetta Outlaw, nearly drowning in an underwater tunnel filled with fish; the Killburn houses, connected at the second story by a gigantic cobweb of woven rope; and many more. These images are surrounded by strangely clipped, staccato prose. The total effect is misty and chimeric; the world of M.C. Higgins felt more remote to me even than that of The Bronze Bow or The High King.

I enjoyed that aspect of the book, even when I wasn't sure how well all of the images fit together. However, I didn't enjoy the book as a whole, largely because of the second thing I noticed: many modern readers are going to find some of the characters intensely dislikable.

Consider: much of the plot revolves around the interactions between M.C. and Lurhetta. However, the first time they meet is when M.C. sexually assaults her -- and if you think that's too strong a phrase, I'd like to ask what else I'm supposed to call a sequence of events in which M.C. stalks Lurhetta down in the woods ("He had lured her, like a deer caught by a delicious scent"), and then kisses her while holding her at knifepoint. I don't know how this read in 1975; in 2016, however, it struck me as a fatal error. It removed all sympathy that I had for the main character, and without that sympathy, the book simply doesn't work. Nothing that M.C. did for the rest of the book was enough for me to overcome or overlook that incident.

Additionally, the character of M.C.'s father, Jones, struck me as deeply problematic. To be fair, the relationship between M.C. and Jones is portrayed as an ambivalent one. However, Jones, with his personality that turns from charming to threatening in an instant, his unwillingness to move his family or otherwise prepare for the fact that his house is threatened with eventual destruction from a gigantic pile of waste leftover from a strip-mining operation, and his "games" that involve smacking his child in the face so that he can "make him tough," reads to me simply as a domestic abuser. Again, perhaps readers three decades ago would have thought of this differently, but I was unable to believe or accept the moment of father-son bonding that takes place at the end of the book, given what had come before.

In retrospect, the most influential book of the 1975 award year was probably Robert Cormier's downbeat classic The Chocolate War, which helped to shape the nascent YA genre. However, no one at the time that I'm aware of argued for The Chocolate War over M.C. Higgins, which possibly says something about the clarity of hindsight versus the cloudiness of the present. In the history of the Newbery, M.C. Higgins, the Great, is important. Virginia Hamilton was the first Black author to win the award, and the novel introduced underrepresented people and settings to the Newbery pantheon. However, I think M.C. Higgins has aged terribly, and I'd anticipate many young readers today finding it off-putting and odd.

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