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Virginia Hamilton, the Great

By Jane Langton

Why does Virginia Hamilton perch M. C. Higgins on a swaying pole forty feet high? Why, why? Why is there a secret model of the solar system in The Planet of Junior Brown (Macmillan)? Are they images for the vastness of all-surrounding reality? Do they work? Do they help? Or are they merely puzzling and queer?

I can’t decide whether I think these two books would be better off without these oddities, or whether it is the strange things themselves that haunt me. If I were forced to make up my mind, I guess I would say that Junior Brown would be a better book without the Planet and that M. C. Higgins could have stood on his own lofty front porch on Sarah’s Mountain and looked out over his world without climbing a steel pole at all.

But who cares? If Virginia Hamilton wants a forty-foot pole, she can have it; and if she wants a giant butterfly or a colossal pumpkin, she can have them too. I don’t care what she throws in, because she is a writer of such mastery and power. But beware — she takes over. By some kind of mesmerism or demonic possession, she snatches away mind and soul and body and replaces them with those of a thirteen-year-old boy who lives on a mountainside in some nameless hilly place near the Ohio River. You breathe his every breath, and think his every thought, and hear and see with his eyes and ears. From the first paragraph, when you are suspended in air overlooking the valley, you are conscious of inhabiting that strong, young body and of looking about in the moist, golden air over the thick, green growth of the hills.

Here you are, inside this boy. Can he read and write? It doesn’t matter. Poverty has purified his life of dross, reducing it to elemental things. MOTHERS: “Smiling, Mrs. Killburn swept the baby up and under her arm. She held the child around its middle, the way she might rest a sack of sugar on her hip.” FALLING IN LOVE: “In his excitement at having the girl come home with him, he was going too fast. He saw everything around him as if in a fog. Pure outlines of branches, pine boughs, grasses, filled his brain with haze.” DEATH: “Two years ago bulldozers had come to make a cut at the top of Sarah’s Mountain. They began uprooting trees and pushing subsoil in a huge pile to get at the coal. As the pile grew enormous, so had M. C.’s fear of it. He had nightmares in which the heap came tumbling down. Over and over again, it buried his family on the side of the mountain.”SUPERSTITIOUS DREAD: “You can be stalking. Hear a sound. You look to see but there’s nothing. Turn back, and he’s there on the path blocking you. Don’t try to pass him by.” THE LAND: “as they began to climb the foothills, Grey Mountain and Hall Mountain came into view like swollen, smoky giants. Black with trees, they looked rolling cushion soft and belly full.”

Why is M. C. Higgins called “the Great”? It is his joking name for himself, but in the end he seems to have earned it because he has won his mountain by building a wall against the threatening heap of “spoil.” Surely there is also something slightly superhuman about the way he looks out on the landscape from his pole. Like a prophet, he sees visitors moving far away among the trees and hears them calling and singing out, as though he were being granted remote visionary glimpses of the future. “The pole swung forward in a slow, sweeping arc. Beyond the hills, he caught glimpses of the Ohio River. . . . He raised his arm so that his hand seemed to slide over the perfect roll and curve of the hill range before him to the south. He fluffed the trees out there and smoothed out the sky. ‘Now,’ he said softly, ‘you’re looking good.’”

But M. C. is not so very different from the characters in Virginia Hamilton’s other books. A succession of solemn children — each one grasped by a mystic sense of significance and purpose — moves through space and time, passing among tall columnar presences of immense dignity (Zeely, Mr. Pluto, Mr. Pool, Banina, Jones), intent on strange random errands or journeys in which peculiar events are part of the circumscribing dailiness.

How does she do it? What ouija board does she write on? I find it baffling to describe the strength and rightness of her style. There is no weakening of the spell anywhere. Like a magician or prestidigitator, she leaves you levitated, sawed in half, and put back together — partially transformed. Like a sorcerer, she inhabits you with spirits. And they remain. The demon spell works for good. After reading M. C. Higgins, The Great (Macmillan), you do not altogether get yourself back. It is Virginia Hamilton’s most splendid book so far.

From the December 1974 issue of The Horn Book Magazine

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