This book wasn’t my favorite, but I want to review it because it won the Newbery in 1975, and as many of you know, I’m on a (long, slow) quest to read all the Newbery winners. It also won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award and the National Book Award and became the only book to capture all three of the most prestigious U.S. awards for children’s books.
There is a lot going on within these pages. It’s the story of 14-year-old M.C. Higgins who lives on Sarah’s Mountain, where his great-great-great grandmother settled after escaping from slavery. M.C. has a pretty high opinion of himself. He’s an amazing outdoorsman and the primary caretaker for his younger siblings while his parents are at work. But he’s also arrogant. This is his coming-of-age story, but it’s a tough read, exploring this contradiction in his character quite deeply through various relationships, including with a girl whom he loves and loses. In the meantime, the mountain that he dearly loves has been defaced by strip miners, and his home is in danger of being buried by the rubble heap that’s slowly inching downward with every rainfall. He’s torn between the desire to leave the mountain–which he hopes might come about through a stranger who passes through recording the voices of the mountain folk, including the voice of his extremely talented mother–and the desire to stay where his roots run so deep.
As I said, it’s very deep and very complex. A real thinker. But I wasn’t always a fan of how these complexities were explored. For instance, his friend and neighbor Ben Killburn is described by M.C.’s father as being “witchy”. It illustrates the susperstitions and divisions mountain-dwellers are often known for, but I never really knew how to feel about Ben. We’re never really given a full picture of him until late in the book, and his family truly is odd. He lives in a family compound, a commune really, and all the members are inbred (everyone has six fingers). But when we actually visit the compound, everyone is so incredibly nice and smiley and unreal feeling that I still wasn’t sure how to perceive them. But there’s no doubt M.C.’s haughty attitude toward them is uncalled for.
Then there’s the girl. She shows upon the mountain unexpectedly and M.C. stalks her. They actually get into a knife fight. Later, as M.C. takes a deeper interest in her, we find out she’s older, she’s driving the country and camping, and she goes swimming with M.C. and almost drowns because she never told him she couldn’t swim. It’s just an odd, odd pairing and I could never really wrap my mind around her as a true love interest. Eventually, she gravitates toward the weird Killburn commune and further illustrates M.C.’s inappropriate attitude toward them. (But it was an attitude I sort of shared!)
Finally, M.C. has this 40-foot pole planted at the top of his mountain with a bike seat and pedals on the top. He loves to sit up there, swaying back and forth, overlooking his mountain. I couldn’t quite get over that, either. What an odd detail! And as a mother, I couldn’t imagine anyone actually letting their child do that.
M.C. Higgins the Great won a lot of prestigious awards so someone must have thought it exceptional. I just found it exceptionally peculiar. While I loved the setting and the conflict within M.C. about leaving his home, I just couldn’t embrace him or wrap my brain around his odd fellow characters, which made my desire to explore his further complexities quite low. And I can’t bring myself to recommend this read.