That’d be: resist the temptation to compare these books to the author’s previous work. In other discussions, that comparison can be useful. The Newbery Committee, however, considers only eligible books in comparison to each other. This year, they are reading eligible titles published in 2012, as if no other books existed. Christopher Paul Curtis? Sure, he’s the author of one eligible book, THE MIGHTY MISS MALONE.
Like WONDER, this seems to be a title that invokes high passion on both sides. On my first read, I was completely enthralled by the voice, this wonderful realistic lens through which the reader experiences an African-American family’s plight in The Great Depression. I recall also being surprised at the lack of a strong plot line; though ultimately I completely enjoyed the ride. I thought “Newbery discussable for sure, though I can see stronger titles coming along to diminish it.”
On second read–frankly, looking for the flaws in plot or narrative–I am actually more impressed than ever at Curtis’ mastery of a storytelling voice, ability to set a scene, and to transmit a sense of historical context and emotion without breaking the character or his voice, and without showing his hand as author. I could tell how well he hides his hand because the one place that didn’t do it quite so well jumped right out to me. It’s on p.181 of the ARC. (“Jimmie whispered in my ear, ‘ A hobo’s someone who rides the rails the rails all over the country.’ I already knew that but I said, ‘Thanks Jimmie.'”)
I wonder if some of the mixed reactions to this book have to do with what readers expected of it. Thinking of the book for what it is, and its ideal reader, it offers a wonderfully vivid family portrait in a well developed historical context. I think it’s very respectful of and responsive to readers of historical fiction, with characters more believable than any I’ve encountered this year. I’m particularly confused by complaints that Deza is a “passive” protagonist, or that the story focusses on other family members rather than her. Put the title aside for a moment (not that it’s not a consideration, but just humor me): isn’t this a story about the whole Malone family? Told from Deza’s point of view?
It’s her point of view, in fact, that is the most distinguished aspect of the book. I never felt like she left my side: I felt she was telling me the story, and in breaks in reading, while I went about real life, I could sense her hanging out under the tree, in the corner of the kitchen, at the bus stop, looking at me and saying “Hey, I’m not done–when are you coming back?”
The power of that point of view really hit home in my re-reading, when we got to the part where the father goes on his fishing trip and does not return. My memory of this period of the story was of torment, time crawling by…excruciating, in a good way. If you’d asked me how long that part of the story was, I’d have said “forty or fifty pages.” Yet, on re-reading, as excruciating as it still was, I found that the whole thing transpired in under ten. I was totally flabbergasted. On p.100 (ARC) Deza says “Time crawled by,” and Curtis somehow made it actually happen.
On my re-read, I especially appreciated the skillfulness and subtlety of the character development in Jimmie and Deza; we’re not hit over the head with it, they change in realistic ways, and they remain the same at the core. My favorite line, today, is a perfect example of this, and of Curtis’ overarching sense of humor that makes his story of difficulty work so well: p.257 ARC “I know it was wrong, but I twisted my hips and swung as hard as I could. My fist crumpled against him and pain shot through my arm like a epiphany.”
So, coming to it a second time with low expectations, I find that I find little wrong with this book, and much wonderful. I’m betting, somehow, that someone would like to disagree with me. Don’t worry; I can’t throw a punch to match Miss Malone’s.