I don’t usually blog about books while I’m in the middle of reading them, but M.C. Higgins the Great, the 1975 Newbery Medal winner written by Virginia Hamilton, is challenging me a lot as a reader, and I thought I’d try to work through a few of my issues before getting back to it.
First, this book took me about 70 pages to get into. And it’s under 300 pages. So that’s a big chunk of the reading experience where I’m having to force myself to keep turning the pages.
Once M.C.’s mother is introduced, the whole story started picking up for me. Banina is just this awesome character. Actually all of the characters in this book are really interesting. They aren’t like any people I’ve ever known or even read about really, but they seem utterly real.
The story is pretty simple: fifteen-year-old M.C. and his family live in a house on the side of a strip-mined mountain beneath a giant slag heap that threatens to avalanche down the side of the mountain and take out everything in its path. M.C. is in charge of looking after his younger brothers and sisters while his parents work at whatever jobs they can get (seems like his mother has a regular job while his father is a day laborer who doesn’t always have work). He is really worried about the health of this mountain they live on. Obviously, there’s the problem of the “spoil” that threatens to take out their house, presumably with them in it, but there’s also the problem of the mountain dying from being poisoned through strip mining: both flora and fauna are clearly unhealthy. But M.C.’s parents won’t listen to his concerns and won’t leave the mountain.
Into this environment come two outsiders: a man traveling around with a tape recorder, recording local music and local singers. Banina has an amazing voice, and M.C. is certain she’s going to become a singing star. But it’s unclear right now what “the Dude” is going to do with this local music he’s capturing. The second outsider, a girl traveling alone, features in a couple of very disturbing scenes where M.C. basically stalks and hunts her through the forest, physically attacks her, and then forces a kiss on her. The narrative doesn’t seem quite aware of just how disturbing these scenes are. The disparate elements of the plot aren’t adding up to anything so far, but I’m assuming there will eventually be a point to these three different threads (the family in the path of “spoil”; “the Dude” recording music; the girl hiking around the mountain).
This is absolutely a distinguished novel, incredibly rich and challenging in characterization, development of setting, theme, and use of language. But it’s also a very tough book. I keep feeling like I’m reading literary fiction written and published for adults. I’m reading the Great American Novel, a book that should have been considered for the National Book Award or Pulitzer Prize for fiction–not for a children’s book prize. I am not saying that children’s books can’t or shouldn’t be sophisticated and complex. Not at all. But there is something about this book that makes it feel very much not like a children’s or YA novel at all, at least to me. I’m hoping to be able to put my finger on why that is by the time I finish.
At this point, I am appreciating the book very much, but I’m still not sure what my enjoyment level is.