Thursday, May 8, 2014

Gary to Flint via Hooverville

The Mighty Miss Malone
The Mighty Miss Malone, by Christopher Paul Curtis, has been on my wishlist for years, so long that I don't quite remember how it first came onto my radar.  Curtis has written multiple historical novels about the Black American experience, from the Great Depression to the Civil Rights Movement.  The Mighty Miss Malone is set in Indiana and Michigan during the Great Depression.

Deza Malone is a very happy 12-year-old in Gary, Indiana.  She has a fantastic relationship with her parents and older brother, she and her best friend are doing brilliantly at school, and her teacher has agreed to tutor her over the summer.  Life is grand, even though her father hasn't worked in months, there are bugs in the oatmeal, and her teeth are so bad that she can barely eat solid food.  One day her father goes out on a fishing trip, and when he returns days later, he is not the same man.  He goes off to find work in Michigan, with the rest of the family going later to try to find him.  But it's hard to find work anywhere, and even harder to scrape enough money together to feed a family.

I listened to this book on audio and thoroughly enjoyed it.  It was so easy to fall in love with Deza, who worked hard to improve her vocabulary and always told us exactly where every city was "geologically located."  She also had such a strong relationship with both of her parents, who came to life so completely.  Often, I feel like parents in books written for children or teens are a bit wooden or stock characters, just really there to administer punishment, drop some life lessons, and provide a means of transportation.  But in The Mighty Miss Malone, both parents are fully fleshed out with their own histories and personalities.  Deza's father likes alliteration ("my darling daughter Deza") and her mother is that combination of strong, stern, and loving that is so ideal.  Deza's brother Jimmy was great, too.  So ... basically everyone in this book is someone I would love to know.

I also like the way that Curtis wrote about the black experience of the Great Depression for a younger audience.  When the book begins, readers do not realize how poor Deza's family is.  All we know is she's a happy, well-adjusted kid who has a lot going for her.  We learn slowly through hints thrown here and there that start to add up that Deza Malone's life is not a bunch of roses.  Curtis hints that it's difficult for Deza's father to find work not only because of the Depression, but also because he's African-American.  Her mother works as a maid for a rich family in Gary, but the letter of recommendation that her employer writes for her is less than glowing and lets readers know that Deza's mother's job probably was a difficult one.  We see how families just up and left their homes overnight, not even getting to say goodbye to their friends.  We meet people who live off the land, hitch rides on freight trains, and make homes in Hoovervilles.  It's an excellent introduction to such an important part of American history, and I could see a class reading this book in school and doing many related history lessons, too.

There was a somewhat odd situation in this book with Deza's father's fishing trip and the ripples it sent through the family; I didn't quite understand what the point of that was except maybe to separate Deza's father from the rest of the family for a bit.  To me, it didn't really fit with the rest of the book.  But that was just a small thing and all of the good aspects of the book totally trumped it.

Really, a fantastic book that brings the Great Depression vividly to life and shows us just how much strong family bonds can help people get through tough times.  Thoroughly enjoyed this one, and I hope you all give Christopher Paul Curtis a try!


  1. I ordered this the other day and now I'm extra glad I did :D

  2. I do a terrific job of collecting his books and a terrible job of reading them; the only one I've read is The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963. There is an incident in that story too, which felt a little at-odds with the rest of the story, but it was used as an incentive for a character's later decision; I'm wondering now if there is a relationship between this scene and the one you've described because it would seem to have some aspects in common; I'll have to read TMMM to know for sure. In any case, I loved the characterization of TWGTB1963 and the fact that, though set in the past, the story felt tremendously relevant.

  3. I don't think I've ever read anything set in The Great Depression - at least not a book that actually spoke about the depression anyway. This sounds like a good start.

  4. Okay okay. I will try it. I never read books set during the Great Depression, and I know that is not the best aspect of my reading personality. :p (True fact: When I was taking my American History AP test in high school, I studied super hard but I got bored and skipped studying about the Depression and the New Deal. And then of course that's what the big essay question was about. And I still didn't learn my lesson because I haven't read anything set during the Great Depression since then.) But it'll be easier maybe if the book's not set in Kansas/Oklahoma where everything was miserable (as you would expect) + dusty. It's the dustiness I get tired of.

  5. Yay! I'm glad you enjoyed this one. Now you HAVE to read Bud, Not Buddy. Deza plays a small role in that book.

  6. Oooh, this sounds good. The Great Depression is not really my era of choice, but it sounds like this might be a good exception for me.


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