I intended to re-read Bud, Not Buddy before picking up Christopher Paul Curtis‘s newest novel, The Mighty Miss Malone, since it is considered a companion novel to the earlier, Newbery-winning novel. However, I decided I had neither the time nor the inclination right now to re-read a story I’ve already read, so I plunged into The Mighty Miss Malone anticipating a great story but not knowing how much I’d miss since my memories of Bud, Not Buddy are pretty sketchy. It turns out that The Mighty Miss Malone is a book that can stand on its own two legs with no problem at all, and I enjoyed it immensely. Set in Gary, Indiana, and later, Flint, Michigan, during the height of the Great Depression, it is the story of the Malone family and their experiences during the Depression. At the heart of the story is twelve year old Deza Malone, affectionately and appropriately nicknamed by her family as “The Mighty Miss Malone.” She is extremely smart and confident and opinionated, and things go well for her in Gary, Indiana. After all, she’s the smartest girl in her class, and life treats her fairly gently. Things begin to change, however, when her father goes off on a fishing trip and finally comes back home a sick and broken man, and things go downhill quickly for the Malone family after this. Their poverty, which was always present, becomes a real issue, and the family must split up in order to survive. The family (minus father) find themselves in a shantytown outside of Flint, Michigan, from where Deza’s older brother, Jimmie, finally takes leave of the family, too. Jimmie is as talented at singing as Deza is at reading and writing and thinking, and he knows his only hope is to capitalize on that talent. The family goes from one heartbreak to another, with the book finally ending with a subdued happy ending and most of the loose ends tied up.
That is a very understated summary of a book with quite a few unexpected plot twists, but what really makes the book good is the characterization. Anyone who’s read anything by Christopher Paul Curtis will recognize his characters’ voices as the strength of all his novels, and this one is no exception. Since the story is told from her perspective, Deza is the one whose voice we hear the most. Here is one of my favorite examples of Deza’s wit and intuition:
This is a bad habit Jimmie picked up from Mother. She’s always complaining that her feet are cold and when she’s laying on the couch reading she’ll ask Jimmie or Father to sit on her feet so they’ll warm up. She’s turned us into a bunch of brood hens. (57)
(This literally made me laugh out loud because I’ve been known to do the same thing. 😉 ) Here’s another:
If hospitals took that horrible smell they have, bottled it up and mailed it away, this poorhouse in Lansing, Michigan, must have been where the postman had been delivering the bottles. (286)
The other strength of this story is the strong sense of place of time. Again, Curtis excels at this. Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres, and this one really paints a picture of life for an African American family during the Great Depression. Curtis brings to light seemingly insignificant events–like the boxing matches between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling in 1936 and 1938–as a foil to explain the hope people, especially African Americans, held onto during this bleak time in history. This novel really paints a memorable picture of life during the Great Depression, from Mother straining the bugs and worms out of the oatmeal to cook for her family to the smell from Deza’s rotten teeth which the family cannot afford to have fixed. I came away from the novel having a better understanding of the desperation so many people felt during the 1930s:
Hoping is such hard work. It tires you out and you never seem to get any kind of reward. Hoping feels like you’re a balloon that has a pinhole that slowly leaks air. (232)
I have to mention what I consider a serious weakness in the book. The first half of the book I felt like I really knew Deza. However, about half-way through the novel and about the time the famly splits up and Deza, her mom, and brother move to Michigan, I felt like Deza’s voice grew much more subdued. This partially makes the story work–Deza is growing up, and she’s losing some of her innocence and naivete about life. However, what I like so much about the story is Deza’s voice, and it almost felt like she was muted under water during the last half. The last half of the novel happens quickly, too–lots of events, without a lot of day-to-day interactions between the characters.
Still, this is a very strong work of middle grade fiction that would add much to any study of the Great Depression or race relations in the United States. I really enjoyed it and give it a Highly Recommended. (Random House, 2012)
Related links and reviews elsewhere:
- Author’s website
- Discussion of the novel, considered a Newbery-contender, on the Heavy Medal (Mock Newbery) Blog (Don’t miss the comments–that’s where the good stuff takes place!)
- Review at A Fuse #8 Production (negative)
- Review at The Book Smugglers (positive)
The Mighty Miss Malone is a 2012 Cybils nominee in the middle grade fiction category, and I read it for the Armchair Cybils challenge. I would’ve eventually read it anyway since it’s a considered a Newbery contender and by Christopher Paul Curtis.