Fact: It is a truth universally acknowledged that a new book from Christopher Paul Curtis is a great good thing.
Fact: There is a new book out there. It is by Christopher Paul Curtis.
Opinion: It doesn’t work.
When you hand a kid a Christopher Paul Curtis novel you can rest safe and secure in the knowledge that the book you’re handing over is going to have humor leavened with little moments of surprising heart and clarity. You know that the title is going to make an era from the past more real to the child reader than any number of history textbooks at school. You know this. And the remarkable thing about The Mighty Miss Malone, Mr. Curtis’s newest novel, is that it manages to accomplish all these things, and accomplish them well, without being a particularly good book. There are times when Mighty Miss Malone sparkles and crackles and comes to life on the page. Of course there are. This is Christopher Paul Curtis we’re talking about here. But those moments are buried deep beneath a plot that is at times quite slow, a protagonist that is passive, and a plot twist that seemed so nice he used it twice. Mr. Curtis is one of our finest writers for young people working today and this is not his finest work. It’s fine. Not great.
If you were paying close attention to the book Bud Not Buddy then you might have caught a glimpse of a girl named Deza Malone when Bud stopped in a Hooverville for a while. Turns out that there’s more to her situation than meets the eye. A formidable student and smart gal, Deza spends much of her time defending her older (yet shorter) troublemaking brother Jimmie. But when their father has a horrible accident out on Lake Michigan everything changes for the worse. The man who returns to them seems like their dad but there’s something different about him. Before they know it he’s left town to find work, their landlord kicks them out of their home, and their mother is determined to go to Flint, Michigan to find Deza’s dad as well as some work of her own. Sometimes the biggest plans are the most difficult to carry out, though. And sometimes help comes from the most unexpected of places.
A quick note: If ever you heard the words “Spoiler Alert” you are hearing them now. I have every intention of giving away every plot twist, every surprise ending, every little secret Mr. Curtis has tucked away in the folds of this novel. Should you wish to be surprised by ANYTHING in the book, cease and desist with reading this review right now. Seriously, I don’t want to ruin something for you that you might really enjoy. Go. Shoo. Scat. Off with you unless you’re fine with that (or have read the book already). All gone? Then let’s begin.
I think the key to the novel lies in its creation. In a note to the reader, Mr. Curtis recounts how the idea for this book came into being. He was invited to speak to an African American mother-daughter book club in Detroit about Newbery winner Bud Not Buddy. “Big mistake”. According to him the minute he walked in he was confronted by some of the moms wondering what exactly happened when that random girl in the Hooverville kissed Bud. Explaining that they were only getting half the story Mr. Curtis found that the seeds to this new book were planted in his noggin. He’d been criticized for not writing any stories with girl characters as the heroines. Now here was his chance to right/write that great wrong. A good story, but I think there may have been a reason Mr. Curtis had avoided the female point of view until now. He still gives all the good stuff to his boy characters.
Curtis does a perfectly serviceable job of getting inside Miss Malone’s head to sound like a girl, no question. So why the heck isn’t she allowed to save the day? We spend a great deal of time hearing from the adults in this novel how Deza’s clever head will be what saves the family someday. There’s a lot riding on her brains and everyone from her schoolteacher to her parents to her older brother is sure that she’ll be the saving of them all. This would seem to imply that by the end of this book Deza will do something clever that will save the day. Not so much. The only time she does anything particularly surprising and of her own initiative is when she sneaks off to Detroit to find her brother. When she does she sees he’s doing well, ends up back home again, and that’s that. And later when it turns out that someone mysterious has bought the family a home, who’s the true hero of the book? None other than Jimmie, the short troublemaking brother with the voice of an angel. By the time I got to the end of the book I realized that Jimmie was the true hero of the novel. He’s the one that goes through the most personal growth and change. To my mind Mr. Curtis clearly wanted to be writing about him rather than Deza. In Jimmie you’ve got a shyster with a heart of gold that goes on to make good and save his whole family. Now THAT’s a story! Deza? She just sort of goes along for the ride. Not what you’d hope for with Mr. Curtis’s first true heroine.
None of this is to say that Deza isn’t appealing. I liked seeing her initially as a kind of Depression-era Anne of Green Gables with a subconscious that talks like Edward G. Robinson. Her daydreams, where she snickers over the graves of her fallen tormenters, are fantastic, as is her voice. There’s a lot of pluck in this gal, a fact that makes her eventual passive status all the more frustrating. Even the letter she forges isn’t even her idea but her brother’s. Do you see why I think he was supposed to be the hero of the book?
Other problems had to do with how unclear her point of view was. We’re seeing everything in this book through her eyes and you know that she’s willfully trying not to see the truth about certain things. For example, late in the book when she believes her father has bought a house for the family I think we’re supposed to understand that she’s ignoring the facts that don’t make sense. The trouble is that there are ways of making it clear when a character is ignoring the truth of a situation and Mr. Curtis never attempts any of these. Then there’s the fact that we hear one thing and see another. Early on Deza tells us that her father is taking a while to recover from his initial ordeal but that’s not what we see. She’s telling us and Mr. Curtis isn’t showing us. What we see is a guy who is laughing and making jokes and might be a little quiet now again, but there’s nothing to really suggests the accident has significantly changed him.
For all of this, the problem that really hurt was the fact that the big climax where Deza and her mother find her father in a poorhouse was basically a reworking of the moment earlier in the book when he’s brought home from a hospital after his accident. In both cases he’s unrecognizable. In both cases Deza doesn’t run to him. In both cases it’s her mother who knows him first and best. Then I think of Mr. Curtis’s previous novel Elijah of Buxton and the sheer gut-punch of that amazing ending. I expected something like that which is probably my own fault. What I got instead was something repetitive, so naturally I was disappointed. Kids reading the book won’t have such high expectations but even they will recognize that the climax is essentially just a repeated beat in the end.
I complain but honestly there’s a lot to enjoy here as well. I loved that Deza did not appreciate the significance of the Joe Louis fight and that her father explains it to her ending with “It’s ironic, but Joe will show we’re human by savagely beating the stuffing out of someone.” Great line. Here’s another good one: “The smell was like a living animal, it clawed at your nostrils and rubbed against your legs like a overfriendly cat.” Mr. Curtis is also king of the stinging detail. The fact that Deza’s father has to turn his face when she kisses him because of the stink of her rotting teeth . . . that’s the kind of image that stays with a person. Of course it did rankle a little since it was clear that if Deza heard that as one of the reasons her father was leaving she would jump up and inform him that her teacher had promised to take care of her teeth and that he didn’t need to leave. But that’s neither here nor there.
When I read The Mighty Miss Malone it started out slow and steady. Then the father disappeared and it picked up like a racehorse. But that energy eventually works itself out so that by the end it’s just sort of plodding along. The trouble may be in having too high a set of expectations. If this book had been written by anyone else I bet I’d be singing its praises to the skies and forcing it into the arms of unsuspecting infants. But since Christopher Paul Curtis wrote it I expect the best of the best of the best. To encounter merely the serviceable instead is disappointing. There is a ton to love about this book, but if you’re looking for something of the caliber of The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 or Bud, Not Buddy or Elijah Of Buxton you not find that here. This book is fine, but we may have to wait for Mr. Curtis to take on a boy’s perspective once more before lightning strikes again.
On shelves now.
Source: Galley borrowed from fellow librarian for review.
Notes on the Cover: One of the great covers of the year it’s hard to find anything at fault here. I did show it to a friend of mine with a costuming background who assured me that if this book was set in the Depression era then there was no way Deza would be wearing an outfit with elastic on the sleeves. Acknowledged. Still, I think they made an effort and at this point in the game that means the world to me. Plus I like the kid herself. She looks likable.
Trendwatch 2012: The lisp – At one point Deza’s father acquires a lisp. The written lisping sections read quite a lot like the lisping sections found in Adam Rex’s middle grade novel Cold Cereal. FYI.
- The Book Smugglers
- The Classroom Bookshelf
- Ms. Yingling Reads
- Waking Brain Cells
- Children’s Atheneum
- Be sure to check out all the useful videos and links regarding this book over at Nerdy Book Club.