Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Maniac Magee, by Jerry Spinelli

I knew what I was getting myself into with this one.  I was fortunate enough to get my own copy of this from some one's yard sale shortly after it was published.  I really wasn't in a good frame of mind to reread it since I was especially predisposed to be weepy that week, but what the heck.  The blog needs me; it was time to step up.

The book tells the story of Jeffrey "Maniac" Magee.  Orphaned at three years, he spent the next eight being raised by an aunt and uncle who cared for him, but hated each other.  They lived together in a divided home, and when Jeffrey couldn't stand the tension and hostility any longer he took off running and didn't come back.  A year later finds him jogging through the town of Two Mills, Pennsylvania.

Jeffrey has a few interactions with kids there, mostly amazing them by blithely performing feats of athleticism or fearlessness which earn him his title nickname.  He doesn't aim to impress; he actually seems oblivious to how exceptional these acts are.  But as he's making friends with some of his peers, he's also making enemies of those who feel ridiculed by his skills.

As Jeffrey is trying to figure out his place in Two Mills, he slowly discovers that that the town is divided by race.  The East End is mostly black, and the West End mostly white.  He slowly becomes conscious of how his disregard of the understood barrier causes people on both sides to distrust him (and in some cases, be outright hostile).  But he also can't bring himself to avoid people that he has no legitimate reason to fear, either.  In some ways, the various parts of Two Mills are the closest thing to a home he's had in years.  But in other ways, he isn't completely safe there.  As he tries to find his way, he spends some time sleeping in the buffalo pen at the zoo until he's taken in by its elderly caretaker.

I feel like I'm doing a rotten job summarizing this well-written book.  It hit me right in the feels as a kid, and still has an emotional impact on me today.  But my feelings on the book are much more complicated than they were over 20 years ago, now that I've lived longer and seen more and the dialogue on race has been broadened and clarified (but not remotely simplified) by concepts like "white privilege" and "micro-aggressions" and #blacklivesmatter.  In Jeffrey's Two Mills, blacks and whites are living completely parallel lives on opposite ends of town with their only differences being the color of their skin.  But recent events in the news call up questions in my grown-up mind that are never addressed in descriptions of this imaginary town, like "What color forms the majority the Two Mills police force?" or "Is the balance of power between East and West end really equal?  Which end has the nicer houses?  The better schools?  Jobs?  Crime?"  Or questions about the book itself- "If Jeffrey were a black kid, could he have safely done the same things that white Jeffrey did?  How would his story have been different?"

The book really does a wonderful job getting a dialogue started for its target age group.  But that age group will soon be exposed to a much more complicated reality.  I wonder what books teachers are using for follow-up reading if this book is part of their curriculum.

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