1975 Newbery Medal: M. C. Higgins, the Great by Virginia Hamilton

M. C. Higgins, the Great, by Virginia Hamilton, was published in 1974 by Simon & Schuster.

M. C.’s family is rooted to the slopes of Sarah’s Mountain. His great-grandmother escaped to the mountain as a runaway slave, and made it her home. It bears her name, and her descendants have lived there ever since. When M.C. looks out from atop the gleaming forty-foot pole that his father planted in the mountain for him—a gift for swimming the Ohio River—he sees only the rolling hills and shady valleys that stretch out for miles in front of him. And M. C. knows why his father never wants his family to leave. But when M.C. looks behind, he sees only the massive remains of strip mining—a gigantic heap of dirt and debris perched threatening on a cliff above his home. And M.C. knows they cannot stay. So when two strangers arrive in the hills, one bringing the promise of fame in the world beyond the mountains and the other the revelation that choice and action both lies within his grasp, M.C’s life is changed—forever.

Rating: 2/5

I struggled to get engaged with M. C. Higgins, the Great. Very little actually happens, and the book has an almost sleepy tone to it, yet also a deceptively menacing tone, as well. I say “deceptive” because I kept expecting a dead body to show up, what with all the talk of gullies, tired people, and the feeling of dreadful anticipation that hovers over the events of the book.

 The book takes place over about three days of M. C.’s life, and I suppose is a good glance at a “day in the life” of a teenage boy who is worried about the spill heap threatening his home and fascinated by the strange girl that shows up and turns his world, briefly, upside-down. There’s some neighbor conflict, with the strange, possibly inbred Killburn family, but the overall conflict is clearly the danger on the mountain.

I could tell, while reading, how Hamilton conveys the threat of strip mining to people’s lives and homes while also emphasizing the family bonds that keep people in one place, regardless of danger. Yet, even though I could see it, the book didn’t make me feel it. I was monstrously bored throughout, and the agonizingly slow pace made it difficult for me to want to continue reading it.

I can see why M. C. Higgins, the Great, won the Newbery Medal. I can see why it’s considered a great book. However, I didn’t like it. It was slightly too all-over-the-place for me, but the biggest thing was simply that the book didn’t interest me. I also thought the ending was a little strange, in that I have no idea why M. C. thinks his solution would actually work. A great book, but not my cup of tea.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None

Genre: Historical Fiction, Children’s

“There’s some girl out there,” M. C. said. “Saw her early, just walking along. Some new kind of a girl. And just now I saw something shining. But I don’t see it now. Don’t know if it’s the girl for sure. You have any protection against girls?” He laughed.

The dude smiled up at M. C. “Is she a pretty little thing with a back pack?”

“Sure, a green pack,” M. C. said. “You know her?”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2D4UuUm

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The House of Dies Drear by Virginia Hamilton

The House of Dies Drear, by Virginia Hamilton, was published in 1968 by Macmillan.

The house held secrets, Thomas knew, even before he first saw it looming gray and massive on its ledge of rock. It had a century-old legend—two fugitive slaves had been killed by bounty hunters after leaving its passageways, and Dies Drear himself, the abolitionist who had made the house into a station on the Underground Railroad, had been murdered there. The ghosts of the three were said to walk its rooms….Yes, the house held secrets…did it hold danger as well? Thomas was sure it did, but his obsession that the house give up its secrets led him on, through the terror entrapment in its labyrinth of tunnels and to an awesome confrontation with Pluto, the mysterious and formidable “devil” who jealously guarded the house. Then, suddenly, it was alarmingly clear—there was danger, and the Smalls were being warned to flee. But what kind of danger, and why, and what did it have to do with running slaves and the ordeals of a hundred years ago? Thomas searches, and in searching finds not only the answer to these secrets from the past, but a deeper sense of his own connection to that past.

Rating: 3/5

The House of Dies Drear is a bit of a spine-chilling suspense/mystery novel. Hamilton’s sparse writing helps contribute to the overall tension of the book, combining with the history and the mysteries of the past to create a creepy atmosphere. It’s a bit of a strange book, but you can tell how much Hamilton put into this book as it relates to her own history.

I suppose calling this book a mystery is a bit of a misnomer. It’s not really a mystery; it’s more suspense. There is some mystery aspects to it, especially at the beginning, but the mystery is solved midway through and the rest of the book is the characters dealing with what they have discovered.

The House of Dies Drear holds a lot of information about the Underground Railroad and black culture, in general, including things like the church environment which was nice to see in a novel. Most novels these days (and movies) pretend like religion (or, at least, Christianity) doesn’t exist at all, and if it does, it’s some distorted version of it that the author uses as a strawman. Hamilton’s take was both historical and respectful, detailing how important things like church and the church experience are to people, especially when in a new situation.

The House of Dies Drear is an effectively creepy novel, and though it’s not the best thing I’ve read, it was certainly interesting and informative. I appreciated it for the passion so subtly conveyed by the author and for its historical worth. I probably won’t read it again, as it was a little too strange and not quite engaging enough for me, but it’s a good book.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction

As soon as Thomas had entered the room, he understood what old Pluto had tried to do. He had arranged the furniture in a rigid progression, with the two long windows, not the open fireplace, as its focus. Thomas’ eyes swept from the fireplace to the windows, then out into the gray day, on and on, until he could see no farther.

It’s his warning, thought Thomas. He means for us to flee.

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2fr64TF