M.C. Higgins, the Great

8955a5d4-613a-455e-9481-b8014417581a_1.475dba62a7e8e0fbbef867d15868bbb1

NEWBERY MEDAL WINNER – 1975

M.C. Higgins, the Great

by Virginia Hamilton

Age: 9 +

Interests: nature, family history, mountain life, superstition, coming of age stories

M.C. Higgins is thirteen and seems to be the master of his world. He knows the woods and the mountain like the back of his hand, is a proficient stalker and hunter, swims like a fish, and is the only one who can shinny up the forty-foot steel pole he had his daddy put up in their yard. He sits on the bicycle seat atop that pole and looks out over the landscape, pretending he can reach out and control the elements. He’s vivacious and charismatic, he can even commune with dead ancestors and see visions of the future. But he is growing more and more troubled about his place in the world. He has just begun to challenge and question his father’s wisdom, and worry about his family’s safety. Their home sits on the side of the mountain, below a slag heap left over from a coal mining operation. M.C.’s father insists the heap is no threat to their home, but M.C. has nightmares about it sliding down on top of them. He is desperate to convince his father that they should leave the mountain, but unsure of how to accomplish this.

One eventful day he meets two outsiders who will change everything. One is a man with a tape recorder, who M.C. hopes will record his mother’s singing and take her (and the whole family) off to a new career in the city. This doesn’t pan out like he hoped. The second stranger is a young woman named Lurhetta Outlaw, aimlessly travelling on her own. M.C. is immediately attracted, his overweening self-confidence disappearing as he awkwardly befriends her. He suddenly sees his family through her eyes, painfully so as she disapproves of their superstitious aversion to the ‘witchy’ family living nearby. M.C. follows along as she visits their extended family commune, and he struggles to shake off his own superstitious fear. Fiercely independent, tough and adventurous, Lurhetta inspires M.C. to take a wider view of the world and his life on the mountain.

Those are the basics of the plot, though there is a lot more going on. Family history has a big part to play, as M.C.’s father refuses to leave the mountain because of family legacy. His grandmother was an escaped slave who walked to the mountain, a single mother with a newborn in arms. There’s also an undercurrent of magic, as M.C. has visions of great-grandma Sarah and can talk to distant friends in his mind. Even though M.C.’s father is in some ways the antagonist of the story, he is also a principled, kind man, and a hero to M.C. This paradoxical relationship reflects the complex struggle of adolescence, to break free of parental influence and control. It’s also typical of the emotional nuance throughout this novel. Nothing is cut-and-dried, every character contains multitudes and surprises. And though the story covers only three days, M.C. learns and matures a great deal by the end. He abandons his wild dreams of escape, accepts his emotional attachment to his home, and devises a plan to keep his beloved family safe on the mountain. He also stands up to his father in defense of his friend Ben and the ‘witchy’ ones.

This is a very thoughtful and far-reaching novel. It’s a coming-of-age story, though it’s less about M.C.’s romantic feelings than about how they shake up his entire worldview. On a larger scale this book is about identifying your place in the world, and renegotiating the power relationship you have with your parents as you enter young adulthood. It’s about listening to, and learning from other people, and accepting other opinions and ways of life. And maybe about not being so cocky all the time.

M.C.’s oddball interior voice, the unfamiliar customs and rituals of the hill people – the yodelling! – and the bewildering magical elements may put some readers off. It’s a hard book to really get a handle on, and at times requires some effort to even picture what’s going on. It’s really well-written, though, and M.C. is a unique and captivating character.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.