Nearby, we have a book fair. They are only open a few weeks a year, but when they are open, it’s like a little taste of heaven on earth for me. Within the walls of two GIANT warehouses, they sell tons and tons of discounted books, usually remaindered titles, in every book category you can think of.
Typically, I begin my book shopping there with the Newberry Award Winners. It’s about a system, you see, and the Newberrys are the first books I come to on the first wall. So this is where I picked up a copy of M.C. Higgins The Great by Virginia Hamilton. A friend had been telling me that I needed to read Virginia Hamilton’s work for a long time, and here was the perfect opportunity. (I also picked up The House of Dies Drear but haven’t read it yet.)
M. C. Higgins is a teenage boy who lives in the rural mountains of Kentucky. His family lives in the kind of poverty that is still often found in mountain communities, and thus, their entire existence is simple and home-focused. The family lives below the slack pile of a major mining operation, and M.C. becomes terrified that this pile is going to tear down the mountain – the mountain his grandmother came to when she was freed from slavery – and destroy his family home and kill his family.
But M.C. is a visionary, a trait made physical with a 40-foot pole he climbs to sway out and over the mountains. On his pole, he can see for miles, and it’s from this vantage that he sees the ethnographer who M.C. hopes will record his mother’s voice and make her famous.
A Circumscribed World
If you go read the reviews of this book on any of the retailers, you’ll see that many people found the story slow and because it’s slow, many people thought it boring. I did not. I found it challenging because it asked me to understand the pain and struggle of a world that is small and focused. There was no great action in this book, no profound conflict instigated by a directly malevolent force.
Instead, the conflict is internal and systemic, caused by M.C.’s own growing awareness and the forces of finance and privilege that take no heed to a poor, black family that could be killed by their mining negligence. In these ways, this book speaks to the struggle of many, many people, and I appreciate that.
The story is not fast-paced, but a quick story would belie the nature of M.C.’s existence, but it is so rich and honest. You’ll want to treasure this one as you read. There’s a reason it won both the Newberry and the National Book Award. . . you just have to be willing to slow down to see it.
A Writer’s Eye View
In addition to Hamilton’s choice of a more stable but no-less-painful setting and set of characters, she also makes use of the natural beauty of the Kentucky mountains to convey richness and complexity to the story. M.C.’s view from the pole, his travels through the woods, and his time at the lake are powerful because they reveal how very much this place is his home.
Hamilton also further complicates the story with the introduction of a small cast of characters beyond Higgins’s own family. A rival family that’s “witchy” brings just a taste of the kind of unease that can be a part of any community when one family acts in ways that make another uncomfortable or afraid. And the arrival of a runaway girl – a girl M.C. takes a fancy to – adds another level of conflict and tension.
This isn’t a big book in terms of action, but if we will sit with it, it can give us writers a freedom to go into the vast interior of a character’s life and push deep into the shadows and crevices of even a small community to see the profound richness of every human life and community.
If you are interested in writing interior conflict or in capturing rural communities, if you’d like to read a book about African-American people that isn’t set in the stereotype of the inner city, if you’d just like to fall in love with a teenage boy who isn’t perfect but is still endearing in his love for his family, this book is for you.
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