Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Book Review Club - The Mighty Miss Malone

The Mighty Miss Malone
Christopher Paul Curtis
Middle grade

After all the fiscal cliff diving the United States media has practiced in the last forty-eight or so hours, this book seems incredibly fitting to review. Christopher Paul Curtis revisits the height of the Great Depression in Indiana/Michigan - site of his Newbery-winning Bud, Not Buddy - in The Mighty Miss Malone.

The story follows the lives of twelve year-old Deza Malone, her brother Jimmie and parents Peg and Roscoe as their lives spiral downwards into shanty town destitution after Deza's father leaves town to find work, her mother loses her job, and the family, their house.

What happens to a family torn apart by poverty? The Mighty Miss Malone draws a very stark picture. It's not so stark that a young audience will feel overwhelmed, but it is very eye-opening. I watched the effects on my daughters every morning on the way to school (we listened to this book on tape). The enlightenment that life can be very very different, was and, today, is for over fifteen million children nationwide reflected on their faces many mornings.

Curtis provides both a forward and an afterward, first grounding the story in the roots of unshakable family bonds and then providing hard-hitting facts such as the number of children living below the poverty line in the U.S. today. He does a good job of weaving a story that entertains, awakens curiosity and provides information.

From a craft perspective, The Mighty Miss Malone, while solidly built upon characters so real I feel  as if I've met them before in my life, follows a plot that is less satisfactory and somewhat random. This could be meant to reflect the very real randomness which wreaks havoc on the lives of so many living at the edge of or in poverty. However, this randomness makes the ultimate resolution to the family's financial woes almost like a deux ex machina. Again, in many ways, finding work during the Great Depression may very well have felt like a deus ex machina. I remember my dad telling me stories about his grandmother, mother of ten children during the Depression, walking down the street and finding a dime and breaking down into tears because she didn't have any money to buy food until she found that dime. So take my comments with that grain of reality salt.

Add to that, however, that Deza does very little to change her plight, unlike Bud, in Bud, Not Buddy, who himself strikes out to find his lone surviving relative. Nor does she solve the internal, emotional struggle, i.e. reuniting the family. Does it matter? Because both the external and internal problems are solved by someone other than the main character, those resolutions are not as intense, nor do they feel as earned. Deza, like the main reader, is along for the ride. We feel with her. We feel acutely. Curtis does an excellent job with that, but we don't ultimately feel satisfied with the story's resolution because Deza hasn't done much to make to it happen. She's suffered, but her suffering doesn't buy her the golden elixir. It's suffering that could continue on indefinitely if someone else (both her mom and her brother) hadn't bought the golden elixir with their actions. Ultimately, it's a bifurcated hero's journey with many hero's solving problems, but none of them is the main protagonist.

Don't let that stop you from reading The Mighty Miss Malone. It's a story worth reading, a time in our history worth revisiting. Maybe if a few members of Congress were to do so, fiscal cliff diving might take on an entirely different meaning.

Oops. Mixing politics with book reviews. Bad, bad reviewer!

For other warm winter reads, plow on over to Barrie Summy's website. Happy 2013!