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.

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