1975: M.C. Higgins, The Great

VERDICT: Trash

Sally’s Rating: 1.5/5

M.C. Higgins, The Great is a coming of age novel that follows the three days of M.C.’s life where he is visited by a man who wants to record his mother’s voice and songs. He also develops an awkward relationship with a girl who is camping up in the mountains, where the issues of environmentalism come into play in the novel.

I had to force myself to keep reading this book to make it to the end. The plot meanders for about 300 pages, resulting in a book that is full of description but lacking a strong narrative. The author devotes a lot of the book to descriptions of the mountains and Appalachia – which is beautiful to read about but fails to make this a real page turner. The focus on environmental issues is the best part of the book as M.C.’s home is threatened by the slag heap that is encroaching upon his territory.

Ultimately, it’s the narrator’s voice and inner thoughts that make this book a bit of a muddle to get through. The narration style hints of a modernist/postmodernist fusion with its stream of consciousness and author’s manipulation of the text – which makes the novel seem like it’s for an older audience that what it was marketed towards. M.C. is a very awkward character and his interactions with the other characters make it hard to connect with his character.

I found it hard to understand what exactly author Virginia Hamilton was trying to convey throughout this novel. The disjointed narration and unlikeable main characters made this a tough one to get through, and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.

1975: M.C. Higgins, the Great (Not)

VERDICT: Trash

Laurinda’s Rating: 2.5/5

The 1975 Newbery Medal Winner, M.C. Higgins, The Great, is a really mixed book. The author, Virginia Hamilton, displays instances of brilliant language use. However, the book suffers from an utter lack of plot. There is no central “struggle”, nor even coherent episodes. Instead, M.C. Higgins, The Great is an almost stream-of-consciousness chronicle of a summer in which the titular character does a lot of growing up. The narrative jumps back in time sporadically, as M.C. zones out and thinks of past events.

M.C. lives up on Sarah’s Mountain in Kentucky, a locale named for his grandmother, who fled there as an escaped slave. His best friend is a Killburn, from a “witchy” family with which M.C.’s father has a long-standing quarrel. The narrative is marked by several main events. A man comes to record Banina, M.C.’s mom (collector/anthropologist, though M.C. is convinced that the man will get Banina discovered and provide a ticket off the mountain). Lurhetta, a wandering girl, shows up and steals M.C.’s heart.  The collector confirms M.C.’s feeling that the slag heap above the house is moving and will crush them. These three events weave with the fabric of everyday life in the hills to force M.C. to grow up somewhat. He deals with the frustration of Lurhetta disappearing and the collector explaining his true purpose by furiously building a wall to prevent the slag heap from crushing them when it does slide.

Although the book raises a number of important issues, like the environmental and human impact of mining, treatment of people that you term “other”, and the creation of heritage, the author really takes no stand on these issues. No one condemns mining despite the shifting slag heap that will bury M.C.’s family settlement or the utter contamination of the water the Killburn family depend on to support their extended family compound. The Higgins and Killburn families don’t truly resolve their differences (which, to be fair, are mostly on the part of M.C.’s father Jones). M.C. does work up the courage to visit the Killburn farm, where he remembers that he played there as a child, and to insist to his father that Ben Killburn be allowed to help M.C, but there’s no resolution. I suspect the author intends this to mimic her version of real life, but she so assiduously avoids polarization of opinions that she loses any hope of gaining reader sympathy.

Whether it was the author’s intention or not, the book left me with the impression that M.C. was not quite right. He doesn’t comprehend why Lurhetta tries to knife him after he scares her in the dark by kissing her, then pinning her down. He lives half in a dream world, where the outside world speaks to him, and is obsessed with climbing his giant steel pole. The dissonance between his appreciation for the natural world and his failure at interpersonal relationships was so marked that it popped me out of the story and destroyed any kind feelings I had towards M.C.

Basically, skip this one. It’s a meandering, plotless work lacking even sympathetic characters. Recommended only if you’re strongly interested in Appalachia and its quirky characters.

1974: The Slave Dancer (not quite the pied piper)

VERDICT: Treasure

Sally’s Rating: 4/5

Paula Fox’s The Slave Dancer is a tough read. The book touches on the horrors of the slave trade through the viewpoint of a 13-year-old boy who must survive on a ship filled with deceitful sailors and downtrodden slaves. Recruited for his musical ability, Jessie plays his fife in order to dance the slaves so they would remain strong and profitable for when they were finally sold.

As a young and curious boy, Jessie’s character at the beginning of the story doesn’t have much bias towards slavery because he has never been around them much before. Much of the story is him reacting as a blank slate to the controversial issues that arise, which makes him an easy character to sympathize with as he learns more and more about what is happening in the world. As a result, he wavers on his thoughts about what is right and what is wrong, but eventually the hellish horror of the voyage convinces him that he doesn’t particularly support slavery.

The tone of the novel was just right. For the majority of the book, the reader must bear witness to some horrific deaths and beatings. Nothing is particularly sugarcoated, and the facts of the novel are presented in a way that makes it seem like one is reading a historical account instead of fiction. While the ending did feel a bit whimsical and too happy for this type of tale, it’s satisfying to see how much the main character has been affected by the events of the novel. All actions had consequences – both good and bad.

With its challenging subject matter, it would be hard to recommend this novel as a light, fun read for a middle school child. I remember first reading this as a fifth grader as part of the curriculum, which I still believe is an appropriate age to be introduced to the issues brought up in this book. Without a doubt, The Slave Dancer is definitely one of the better historical fiction novels for children and deserves its place on the Newbery Medal list.

1974: The Slave Dancer (Ruining Music)

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 3.5/5

The 1974 Newbery Medal Winner, The Slave Dancer, is the store of Jessie, a young musician kidnapped from the streets of New Orleans to “dance” the captives on a slaving vessel. Jessie sails to the Bay of Benin with the crew, learning something of sailors and the cruelty of men on the way. Once captives or on board, he is responsible for playing his fife while the Africans are made to dance; theoretically, this keeps them in better physical shape and enhanced the captain’s profit. When both Spanish and American cruisers approach the salver, the captain throws all the slaves and slaving equipment overboard, but shortly thereafter wrecks in a storm. Jessie escapes, along with a young African boy who Jessie befriended. They wash up in Mississippi and are found by an escaped slaves. The African is taken somewhere safe, while Jessie returns to his mother in New Orleans. He eventually serves with the Union Army, his experiences on the slaver having firmed his opinion against slavery. The book ends by alerting the readers that Jessie’s involuntary journey ruined music for him forever.

The historical milieu of the book is well drawn. Although the date of Jessie’s voyage (1840) is not mentioned until nearly the end of the book, Jessie learns early on that he’s basically sailing on a pirate ship, since Britain, America, and Spain have all banned the importation of slaves. The author shows this complexity concretely: the captain carries flags for many different nations and the crew runs up a different one based on the nationality of the vessel they have sighted. They also must surreptitiously land slaves on unpopulated areas of Cuba, where their Spanish partners bribe the magistrates and smuggle the slaves into the markets in Havana.

The overall pacing of the book is executed perfectly. There is time for Jessie’s emotional developments but the action is also fairly brisk. The final length of the book is optimal; I never felt like I was slogging through this. The inclusion of the details of taking on slaves and their treatment (chucked over the rail still alive if fevered, etc.) is matter-of-fact and not overly sensationalized. The epilogue portion, which is only a page or two, is the only portion I would eliminate. It was unnecessary and drew the reader’s attention from the power of the main narrative.

Jessie’s emotional struggle is sympathetically depicted. At points, he hates the captives for making him work hard and because, without them, he would not have been shanghaied. However, he also feels great sympathy for them, particularly as the voyage progresses and the condition of everyone deteriorates. Jessie forms a connection with an African boy about his age. Only by working together do the two survive the shipwreck.

While not the most “fun” of the Newbery Medal books, I do feel that this is one of the most important ones for children to read. Many history books, especially for younger graders, pass over the brutal physical realities of the Middle Passage. This book presents an account that’s realistic without being gratuitously gory; it also deals well with the emotions of someone presented with injustice this stark. Jessie certainly isn’t a hero, and he struggles deeply with both his physical and mental reactions to the slaves. I read this book as a fairly young child (maybe 2nd grade?), and it made a deep impact, to the point where I wrote my own “book” where a friend and I were the slave dancers. I’ll spare you the hilariously horrible narrative and illustrations (I’m not, nor have ever been, a good 2-D artist), but just note that, even at an age where I may have missed subtleties of the moral dilemmas and mental wrangling that Jessie went through, the book was influential.

1973: Julie of the Wolves (of wolves and men)

VERDICT: Trash

Sally’s Rating: 2.5/5

Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George is a slow-paced tale of survival in the wilds of Alaska, telling the story a young runaway girl who becomes adopted by wolves.

This children’s book lacked a strong narrative that could move the plot along at a quick pace, but made up for it with its thematic emphasis on nature and animals. I wish I could have enjoyed this book more, but it felt like such a chore to get through with its long paragraphs of description. Without a doubt, the best parts of the novel were the illustrations of Julie’s interaction with the wolf pack.

The setup of the novel is somewhat disorientating since it thrusts the reader immediately into the action with Julie lost in the Alaskan wilderness. It’s perplexing to not know exactly why she is there since only small tidbits of her past are doled out at a time, making it hard to care much about her struggles until later on in the book. It’s not until the middle section that her back story is revealed, which helps break up the monotonous overuse of description. Without getting much background about the character until later on, I found it hard to care about her situation.

The main issue I had with this book was the pacing. With its introspective nature, much of the novel follows Julie’s internal thoughts and observation of the wolves’ socialization and pack structure. While this part was interesting to read about, the overload of description makes this section a bit of the bore.

This novel deals with themes of humanity’s aggression against nature. There are several key passages at the end of the book that depict the idea of human civilization destroying the natural world – animals and all. This book excelled at showing Julie’s dismay and disillusionment of American society, and throughout the novel, Julie wavers between keeping true to her Eskimo roots or adapting to American civilization. There are no easy choices for her in the novel; sadly, her final decision ends up being a compromise. Don’t expect any happy endings or anything resembling happiness at all in this story of human survival.

Recommended for survival story enthusiasts and animal lovers.

1973: Julie of the Wolves (Civilization? vs. Nature)

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 4/5

Julie of the Wolves, the 1973 Newbery Medal Winner, is far more than just another “growing up with/because of animals” story. The author, Jean Craighead George, presents an examination of serious issues, from the struggle to fit into the expansionist American culture to what impacts non-subsistence hunting has on the environment.

The book opens in the present, with the title character, Julie/Miyax, lost on the North Slope of Alaska. Because her father had taught her traditional Inuit skills like hunting and preparation of hides, she survives on her own. Julie befriends a wolf pack by mimicking wolf body language and movements; this greatly enhances her survival efforts, as the wolves provide meat. After the wolves leave for their winter wanderings, Julie feels bereft. This is when we find out why a lone girl is out in the wilderness by herself. The tl;dr version is that, thinking her father dead, she escaped an unpleasant aunt by getting married at 13. When her mentally lacking “husband” tried to rape her, she fled, shucking off the dresses and language of white American culture in favor of Inuit culture. Following that flash-back, Julie gathers the belongings she prepared and heads toward civilization. A chance conversation with a passing family informs Julie that her beloved father is still alive. She makes her way to him, leaves upon seeing how Americanized he’s become, but returns because she feels that Inuit ways are no longer tenable. The book ends with her abandoning her subsistence lifestyle.

This book was fascinating to me on several levels. As someone with a background in anthropology, Julie’s movement between cultures interested me. She was raised immersed in Inuit culture, with little exposure to white (gossak) culture. Then, her aunt shows up with an order forcing Julie to attend school. Julie takes to English, and enjoys corresponding with a girl in San Francisco. Following the trauma with husband Daniel, Julie rejects English and gossak culture. Based on her experience in the wilderness, particularly the gunning down of the alpha wolf by a man in a plane, Julie comes to hate gossak culture, viewing it as disruptive and wasteful. However, when she attempts to leave it behind after finding her father, the death of her bird convinces her that her Inuit life is not sustainable. Each of Julie’s transitions is marked by a change between languages and names. She’s trying to find herself in a culture very much in transition, with subsistence hunting being replaced by tourism and technology.

Julie of the Wolves also carries a strong hallmark of the environmental movement. The author spends extensive amounts of space on description of the natural environment and on interactions between species, including a long paragraph in which Julie explains that the sport killing of wolves will result in overgrazing by caribou and the death of most of the ecosystem due to the imbalance created. While the nature descriptions can become tedious, they are an intimate part of the book, forming the backdrop of Julie’s quotidian existence. In the end, it is the death of nature, symbolized by Julie’s pet bird, that forces her back into white culture.

Overall, although overly descriptive at times, this book treats with tough issues. Although there’s no happy ending in this book, Julie gains autonomy and learns to rely upon herself. Though circumstances proscribe some options, Julie makes conscious decisions on who she wants to be, not letting external forces determine that. She develops deep relationships, albeit primarily with animals rather than humans.

I’d recommend this book primarily for late elementary or middle school students. There is child marriage, a scene with attempted sexual assault, and one instance (between secondary characters) of domestic violence. The overall themes are also appropriate to adolescents/more mature children. That said, this is a fantastic book for children searching for their own identity, perhaps especially those with ties to multiple cultures. In addition, the vivid descriptions of the Alaskan wilderness and its animals make Julie of the Wolves a great choice for children who love nature.

1972: Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (Animal Experimentation Can Be Good)

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 3.5/5

The 1972 Newbery Medal Winner, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, is an eminently readable story starring a family of mice and a group of hyper-intelligent rats. Mrs. Frisby, a widow, cares deeply about her family. In the beginning of the story, her son Timothy catches pneumonia, which endangers the entire family by preventing them from vacating their home before spring plowing. Mrs. Frisby ends up going to the rats, who agree to move her entire house. She also finds out that her husband was good friends with the rats; both he and the rats escaped from the NIMH lab, where they gained heightened intelligence and longevity. The rats help Mrs. Frisby, and she, in turn, warns them that scientists are coming for them, enabling them to escape.

Although a bit tedious at points, the story is generally well told. The author creates sympathy for the hard choices which face Mrs. Frisby. Her mouse-hood fades to the background; instead, her strong personality shines through. The secondary plot, that of the rats’ increased intelligence, is introduced fairly late in the book, primarily as a means to solve Mrs. Frisby’s problem. The NIMH plot is, to me, the more interesting part of the story, though not as well told as the central portion.

Overall, this story is a reasonably entertaining Newbery entry. For children who enjoy animal characters, this is an excellent choice. It is also a great choice to help build a love of nature and empathy towards animals, as the mice and rats all have strong personalities.