Thursday, February 21, 2013

Hard Times On the Way to Wonderful: The Mighty Miss Malone by Christopher Paul Curtis

"We are a family on a journey to a place called Wonderful."

A funny thing happened on the way to Wonderful for the optimistic Malone Family. "And they lived happily ever after..." is the way the smart and self-confident eleven-year-old Deza thinks all stories should end. Sure, they live in a rented, furnished apartment in Gary, and sure, Jimmie hasn't grown a fraction of an inch since he was twelve, and sure, her beloved teacher tells her her excellent writing is a "credit to her race," but her mom and dad have jobs and Deza has a best friend, and although short, Jimmie is the best singer in the world, and they all believe that they are on their way to "wonderful." Jimmie is even sure that Joe Lewis is going to win his upcoming bout with Max Schmelling.

But it's 1935, in the depths of the Great Depression, and it looks like their "happy-ever-after" is not happening for the Malones. First, Father is laid off at the Gary, Indiana, steel mill, and when he goes out to catch some fish for the table with friends, he is seriously injured and goes missing for days. The strong and witty Father who loved alliterative language and doted on his "Dear Darling Daughter" comes back at last, missing many teeth and most of his hope and love of life. Then, when Mother loses her housekeeping job when the local banker's wife falls on hard times herself, Father tells them all that he's going back to find a job in his hometown, Flint, Michigan. But when no letters or money follow as promised, the Malones are evicted from their home by a landlord who wants to rent the space to two families who will pay more.

The family has few belongings and only a few dollars left, with not even bus fare to Flint, where Father's mother lives, so they finally decide that they will have to stow away in a railroad boxcar heading that way. Grandma Malone is nowhere to be found there, and the Malones are forced to live in a Hooverville shanty town outside town. The camp boss, Stew, is rough but kind, and a traveling harmonica player hears Jimmie sing and talks him into heading to Detroit with him, promising a job in a speakeasy there.

Then their camp is suddenly raided and shut down, and Deza and her mother find themselves truly homeless. But a kind-hearted woman lets them sleep on her floor, Mrs. Malone finds some part-time jobs, and Deza manages to enroll in school, where she discovers that, unlike her school in Gary, "colored" children in Flint never make grades above C. Wonderful is looking further and further down that  road.

And then Deza hears that her brother has become the famous Little Jimmy Jones, a popular nightclub singer, and she heads for Detroit to try to find Jimmie and maybe Father, too. Nothing stops the Mighty Miss Malone, the name her father gave her, and Deza does what she has to do.

The winner of several Newbery honors, Christopher Paul Curtis, author of The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963, Bud, Not Buddy and Elijah of Buxton, deftly returns to the well of African-American history for his story of The Mighty Miss Malone (Wendy Lamb/Random House, 2012).  Deza is indeed a mighty spirit, a girl whose upbeat intelligence and steady loyalty to her family just has to find that happy-ever-after, even if she can't really believe in fairy tale endings anymore. In the hands of a master of characterization and storytelling, Deza shines through the Depression decade, a credit to the human race, or as Holden Caulfield put it so well, "with all her f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact." As School Library Journal says, "Curtis does not sugarcoat reality and focuses instead on the resilience of a memorable character. An absorbing read."

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