The Mighty Miss Malone by Christopher Paul Curtis

It’s 1936 in Gary, Indiana. Deza Malone is a bright, ambitious, full-of-herself twelve-year-old girl, just a little bit too enamored of the thesaurus and not quite enough of the dictionary. She is also African-American.

Readers with more than a passing knowledge of U.S. history won’t need Curtis’ descriptions to guess just what this means for Deza and her family; no amount of love and support can keep reality away forever. In a time and place when the employment opportunities for white men were miserable, black men had no chance at all–as Deza comments, the job opportunities were janitor if you’re lucky and if you’re not, you’re on the crew that goes into the blast furnace to repair/replace the brickwork…while the furnace is still on, though not as hot as when it’s operational.

Things, never good, take a turn for the worse when the father gets into an accident while out fishing on Lake Michigan: a fog bank sweeps in and the boat drifts out into the shipping lanes while the men’s vision is obscured by the fog. A passing freighter flips the small boat over in its wake, leaving the men in the water. Two die, one vanishes, and Mr. Malone disappears for several days; his wife brings him home from the hospital which treated him for hypothermia and a severe gash down the front of his face which has lost him two teeth. Unable to bear the situation in Gary, he flees, ostensibly to search for work in Flint.

After several weeks of no news from the father, the mother loses her job as maid to a wealthy family in town when the wealthy family moves to Europe. She and the two kids ride the rails to Flint in search of the missing father. Setbacks abound: the grandmother is not at her last known address, which has now been converted into an apartment building, the jobs are fewer than in Gary. The mother ends up getting part-time work cleaning office buildings, leaving Deza in the care of Jimmy while the family remains in the Hooverville where they first found shelter. During a sing-along one evening, Jimmy’s singing is noticed by a professional musician in the camp, who passes the word along to a manager in Chicago…and Jimmy’s employed. He sends money back to his mother and sister, pretending it is from his father, to give them hope in addition to financial support; eventually, he’s saved up enough to rent a house for them back in Gary.

In the end, however, the subterfuge is revealed: the mother finds her husband in a poorhouse/nursing home, and brings him home, a broken man.

This is much closer to the ‘unflinching’ end of children’s literature; all the details of what poverty means for the Malones means that The Mighty Miss Malone isn’t nearly as hopeful or funny as the other two of Curtis’ books which I’ve read, Bud, Not Buddy and The Watsons go to Birmingham–1963. And yes: I’ll be among the first to acknowledge just how not-hopeful those two books were. I’d suspect that some aspects of the Malones’ struggles will resonate more with some readers than others, whether the specific individual instances (bugs in the oatmeal, thinking “not to be sold” was the cheese brand name) to the more general (the crushed neighbors after the first Joe Louis-Max Schmeling boxing match). In my case, having had a bit of involved dental work done recently, Deza’s issues with her teeth left me clinging anxiously to my mouth. It’s easy to forget, in this day of Novocain and fluoridated municipal water, just how bad people’s teeth could get…and still do.

Although I do appreciate Curtis including all the goodness in people, whether the African-American teacher who helps Deza with dental work/clothing or the scholar from whom Jimmy steals a pie in Gary or the white “mayor” of the Hooverville. I’m not quite as crazy about this book as the previous two of Curtis’ books I read, and a lot of this revolves around the central character. I’m glad Curtis did create a female protagonist, and her girlness is spot on. Deza seemed a bit off, compared to Kenny or Bud (not Buddy). She struck me as strangely young and naive for a twelve-year-old girl, whether a ‘melanin-challenged’ child in a community of any size today or an African-American child in Gary in the 1930s, despite being unarguably bright, even precocious academically. She also seems curiously passive, though Bud (not Buddy) was exceptional in this regard.

Structurally, I’m dubious about the two sequences in which the mother tracks down her husband, the first time in a hospital and the second in a nursing home of sorts; as has been pointed out elsewhere, this seemed needlessly repetitive, even down to the husband’s appearance.

The book as a whole didn’t seem quite as subtle about issues of racism as the previous two books of Curtis’s that I’ve read, though that’s not necessarily a drawback. While prejudice is all too present in Gary–the librarian’s comment “You’re a credit to your race.” is a comparatively mild example when compared to the ghastly “reference” provided by the mother’s employer–it didn’t seem to affect Deza psychologically until she began attending school in Flint. Faced with institutional prejudice resulting in Cs where she’d been a straight-A student previously, her interest in schooling crumples.

Despite all this, I do desperately hope that there will be many readers in future. Both white and black. This strikes me as being an order of magnitude better than the herd of kids’ books out there currently, engaging, detailed, and more. Just not quite up to what I was expecting based on the other two of Curtis’s books that I’ve read so far. (And he puts in another plug for libraries! though some of the librarians here are racist idiots, we’re not all like that. I promise.)

School Library Journal


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