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BGHB at 50: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Hamilton?: M. C. Higgins, the Great

In celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards, established in 1967, we will be publishing a series of appreciations of BGHB winners and honorees from the past. This is the second in the series to be published in The Horn Book Magazine (see Gregory Maguire’s article on Jill Paton Walsh’s Unleaving and Tim Wynne-Jones’s personal recollection of Chris Van Allsburg’s The Garden of Abdul Gasazi). Further installments will appear in the Magazine and on hbook.com/bghb throughout 2017.

In October 1974, M.C. Higgins, the Great by Virginia Hamilton won the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award for Fiction. The book had received glowing reviews in all the professional review journals. It went on to win the 1975 John Newbery Medal and the National Book Award, making it the first book to win all three major children’s book awards. (The only other book to accomplish this feat is Louis Sachar’s Holes.) The “triple crown” came relatively early in Hamilton’s career. She had won a Newbery Honor a few years earlier (in 1972) for The Planet of Junior Brown, and her first two novels, Zeely and The House of Dies Drear, had been well reviewed. But it was M.C. Higgins, the Great that placed her star permanently in the literary firmament.

So why is it that the book is so seldom talked about all these years later, even in retrospective accounts of Hamilton’s work? Essays routinely skip from The Planet of Junior Brown to Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush to The People Could Fly with nary a mention of M.C. Higgins — except perhaps to say that it won the Newbery Medal, making Hamilton the first African American recipient of the award.

Granted, the book is not an easy read, because it’s so outside the realm of what we expect a children’s book to be. But the plot itself is relatively straightforward, with a pretty basic stranger-comes-to-town setup. The story takes place over three days in the life of a thirteen-year-old boy — full name, Mayo Cornelius Higgins, but called M.C. — who encounters two outsiders in his isolated mountain world, three miles from the Ohio River.

* * *

I had my first encounter with M.C. Higgins, the Great in 1980, the year I entered library school. Since I had decided to specialize in youth services, I felt duty-bound to read all the Newbery Award winners. I started in reverse chronological order (thank heavens), plowing quickly through A Gathering of Days; The Westing Game; Bridge to Terabithia; Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry; The Grey King

And then I got to M.C. Higgins, the Great. There would be no more plowing through. I would have to slow down. Take my time. I knew it from the first paragraph, with the description of the lettuce leaves bound to M.C.’s wrists with rubber bands, “like bracelets of green feathers.” Why? I wondered. The author didn’t say, not right away. As a reader, I had to accept it as just part of who M.C. was. I had to suspend disbelief as I would if I were reading a science fiction or fantasy novel. Or as I learned to do as a child, knowing that I was entering unfamiliar territory.

The lettuce-leaf bracelets weren’t the weirdest things in chapter one. There was the mysterious girl in the woods whom M.C. was tracking. Who was she, and why was she hiking out in a remote mountain area all on her own? There was talk of the “dude,” newly arrived in the area with his tape recorder — could he have come to record M.C.’s mother, with her incredible singing voice? There were the light-skinned, redheaded Killburns, a neighboring family shunned by the Higginses for their “witchy” ways, although M.C. secretly hung out with their son, Ben. They couldn’t be seen together, so Ben always stayed off the path, hidden in the brush, where M.C. could talk to him but not see him.

And, of course, there was that pole. I reread the passages about M.C. sitting on top of that gleaming forty-foot pole so many times, trying to imagine it. The pole stood in the middle of a junkyard, a “shining beacon” set amidst decaying car parts that represented M.C.’s father’s abandoned dream of assembling a working car from an accumulation of spare parts. The depiction of the junkyard was straightforward enough—but that pole! I had the hardest time getting my mind around it. M.C. tells us that his father had given it to him as a prize for learning to swim the Ohio River. M.C. himself had affixed a bicycle seat to the top of the pole and had attached pedals and two tricycle wheels. How? I wondered. Did he do that before the pole was raised, or after? Virginia Hamilton doesn’t tell us. It had to have been before, right? There’s no way he could do that sort of work while balanced on the top.

I had no problem picturing M.C. shinnying up the pole, although I worried about him reaching the top and getting himself positioned on the bicycle seat. Once seated, he seemed secure enough. Until…

Ever so gently, M.C. leaned his body forward on the steel pole. He pushed his feet on the pedals. The wheels spun around. The pole swung forward in a slow, sweeping arc. Beyond the hills, he caught glimpses of the Ohio River. Its sheet-metal brightness rushed to meet him and he had the sensation he was falling free.

Wait, the pole is moving while he sits on it? Arcing back and forth? How does he not fall?

As a first-time reader, I obsessed about that pole. But rereading the book nearly forty years later, I was surprised at how little the pole plays into the story overall — it was a literary eccentricity that stuck in my mind. The book is really more about M.C.’s relationship with his father and, by extension, with his mountain home. The pole is just a means M.C. uses to get some distance from both.

* * *

In his entire life, M.C. has never been away from the small piece of land where his great-grandmother, Sarah, first settled when she ran from slavery carrying her baby to freedom. His parents walk every day to a nearby town for day work, leaving M.C. in charge of his three younger siblings. He perches atop his pole almost like a lifeguard, watching his brothers and sister playing in the distance. It gives him a spectacular view of the surrounding area, including the deep gashes in Sarah’s Mountain left by strip mining. Slowly, the spoil heap that the bulldozers have left in their wake is sliding down the mountain, headed straight toward M.C.’s home. With each hard rain it slides an inch or two closer.

M.C. is desperate to get his family off their land before the spoil heap overtakes them, but his daddy, Jones, won’t listen. Jones is rooted to the mountain. “It’s a feeling,” he tells M.C. “To think a solid piece of something big belongs to you. To your father, and his, too…And you to it, for a long kind of time.”

The conflict between M.C. and his father looms large throughout the story, paralleling the spoil heap. M.C.’s love-hate relationship with his father mirrors what he feels about the mountain. His mother, in fact, points this out to him directly in a conversation the two of them have during an early-morning swim.

“I’m getting tired of Daddy. Tired as I can be…”

“It’s not your daddy you tired of, M.C. It’s here. It’s this place. The same thing day after day is enemy to a growing boy.”

Throughout the book, getting his family off the mountain is M.C.’s obsession. And here is where the two strangers come in. M.C.’s main hope, the “dude,” turns out to be a bust: as it transpires, the dude is a collector of folk songs, not a talent scout offering recording contracts, and has no intention of taking M.C.’s mother to Nashville and making her famous. It’s the other stranger who really has an impact.

M.C. is fascinated by Lurhetta Outlaw, a teenage girl a few years older than he is. She has earned enough money from afterschool jobs to take off on her own during summer vacation, traveling around in her car and stopping to hike in areas that interest her. To M.C. she represents freedom and independence, even if her survival skills are nowhere near his level. She’s been to cities, something M.C. can barely imagine. From their conversation, we can see just how limited M.C’s worldview has been.

Bewildered, M.C. couldn’t picture the road. “Which road you talking about? What do they call it?” he asked.

She laughed. Leaning toward him, she studied his face as if reading a map. “I bet you’ve never been out of these hills.”

M.C. brushed his hand over his eyes where his head ached dully. Waves of feeling for her came and went, leaving him speechless.

“I knew it,” she said. “You have cities all over the place and you haven’t seen a single one. You have Covington and Portsmouth. Louisville.” She looked out over the lake. “Aren’t you curious?”

Later on, M.C. wonders “how a traveler figured out which way to go and what road to take…How would he and his mother and the kids find the way?”

Lurhetta doesn’t just broaden M.C.’s worldview in terms of geography. She also helps him begin to see past the superstitions he has inherited from his parents about the “witchy” Killburns. She thinks nothing of taking Ben up on his invitation to come to his house on nearby Kill’s Mound, and M.C. reluctantly follows. M.C. is surprised to see the multigenerational, extended family living well on their own bit of land, every free inch used for vegetable gardens. The Killburns have also devised an intricate network of rope netting that runs between all their houses so they can move easily from place to place without disturbing the gardens. During the day, the dozens of Killburn children play in the netting. They are safe there.

The description of the Killburn homestead is every bit as strange as M.C. sitting atop the forty-foot-high steel pole, but since it occurs about three-quarters of the way into the novel, readers are prepared to take it in as just another part of the Hamiltonian landscape. There is a delicious weirdness to M.C. Higgins, the Great — to most of Hamilton’s books, in fact — that readers just have to accept from page one. The British critic John Rowe Townsend said it best: “There is a difference in the furniture of her writing mind from that of most of her white contemporaries: dream, myth, legend and ancient story can be sensed again and again in the background of naturalistically-described present-day events.”

M.C.’s interactions with Lurhetta allow him for the first time to see himself through the eyes of another person.

M.C. felt changed. The kitchen had become altered by considerably more than the feeling between him and Jones day upon day. The squat and black cast-iron stove radiated its life-saving heat, as always. Cupboards, icebox, were the same. The children, wide-eyed and willful, as always.

She has seen everything. She, the difference.

He knew he would never be the same.

The different perspective Lurhetta offers M.C. empowers him to make the changes necessary to his family’s survival. First, he insists on an open alliance with the Killburns. M.C. may foresee a time when they will need to work together. Second, he begins to build a wall to try to keep the spoil heap contained. It’s doubtful that it will succeed, but the important thing is that M.C. takes action once he sees, and claims, his future: “Not just living on the mountain. But me, living on the mountain.”

* * *

M. C. Higgins, the GreatBy the time I finished M.C. Higgins, the Great back in 1980, I had come to love that different “furniture” of Hamilton’s. I no longer merely accepted the weirdness. I embraced it. I confess that I didn’t get around to reading the 1974 Newbery winner back then: I quit the Newberies to take a side trip through everything else Virginia Hamilton had ever written. I suspect that reading all her novels, her nonfiction, and her essays did more to prepare me for my future profession than several decades of Newbery winners ever could have done (although I did eventually get most of the Newbery books read). Reading Virginia Hamilton taught me, early in my career, not to be afraid of the weird, the different, the unfamiliar. To know that I didn’t have to understand every little thing to have a rich reading experience, and that the not-knowing would set the stage for a more meaningful subsequent rereading.

All these years later, I’m still thinking about M.C. I can hear his voice yodeling through the hills in response to his mother coming home from work. I can see him, atop his pole, arcing, swaying, pedaling, shaping the clouds and mountains. He has become a part of the furniture of this reader’s mind — and that of all the others who willingly entered M.C.’s world. And that’s what makes him great.

From the July/August 2017 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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Kathleen T. Horning About Kathleen T. Horning

Kathleen T. Horning is the director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, a library of the School of Education, University of Wisconsin–Madison. She is the author of From Cover to Cover: Evaluating and Reviewing Children’s Books and teaches a popular online course for ALSC on the history of the Newbery and Caldecott medals.

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