Thursday, April 16, 2015

M. C. Higgins, the Great, by Virginia Hamilton

This one is practically a children's literature staple.  Even though I'd never read it, the title is familiar.  It's been reprinted numerous times and with numerous covers.  But somehow I never encountered it in my school curriculum.

So, the plot.  In brief:  M. C. Higgins lives with his parents and three younger siblings on the side of Sarah's mountain.  Both of his parents are day laborers who spend their day in the nearby town, so M. C. is usually responsible for keeping charge of his siblings in the hills.  Even when he's not with them, they can call back and forth through the hills, or he can watch them from atop a forty-foot pole that his father put in the mountainside for him.

A great portion of the mountain belongs to M. C.'s family, passed on from the time when his great-great grandmother Sarah, an escaped slave, settled there.  But above them, the mountain has been strip-mined for coal and a pile of leftover refuse threatens to eventually slide into their home, destroying it.  He knows his father will never leave the mountain, but he also knows that they'll have to leave to survive at all.  He hears that a man from the city is headed their way with a tape recorder to capture the songs and voices of the local people and it becomes M. C.'s hope that this man will become so enamored with his mother's voice that he can take them all away and she can become a famous singer.

I wish I was able to have a greater appreciation for Ms. Hamilton.  She has a wonderful talent for painting an atmosphere or a feeling with her words.  But there were also times that I was confused by her writing and wished for more clarity.  For example, M. C.'s pole has a bicycle seat on the top and is connected to wheels, which he pedals from the top to turn himself to see.  But the mechanism of how this works never sunk in for me.  Similarly, his neighbors, the Killburns, farm extensively on an adjacent hillside and connect their homes and gardens at various heights with a "web" of vines.  But I had trouble picturing it concretely in my mind.  This book would really have benefited from illustrations at times like these.

The last thing that left me hopelessly confused is the appearance of the Killburn family.  You'll have to excuse my lack of exposure on this one.  The Killburn children are described as freckled and red-headed.  Growing up in the great white north, in my mind these descriptions paint a picture of a pale child, probably of Irish or Scottish heritage.  So imagine my surprise when searching for cover images, when the matter was clarified for me.  Which now leaves me to wonder whether the Killburns are naturally readheaded (is this possible?) or they suffer from malnutrition by merit of their being vegetarians, like those poor starving kids in Three Cups of Tea?  Not something that the average child would wonder, I know.

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