Jerry Spinelli’s Maniac Magee is a fast-paced novel in three parts, each part subdivided into short chapters. The three parts describe three pivotal periods in the life and growth of the main character Jeffrey Lionel “Maniac” Magee, a young orphan with amazing physical abilities who, through a series of adventures, pursues his dream of finding acceptance in a loving home.
The book is written from the omniscient point of view, as if by a narrator looking back on a legendary hero. By using this approach, Jerry Spinelli helps the reader view Maniac not only from the perspective of kids who chant about how fast he could run, how high he could jump, or how he could untie any knot there ever was, but also from the perspective of adults who marvel at how he managed to bring folks from the black East End and the white West End together. The omniscient point of view also enables the reader to see inside Jeffrey Magee, to know his confusion and his solitude, to be a part of his internal struggle and change.
Although Maniac possesses nearly magical athletic prowess, his dealings with racial problems, peer pressures, homelessness, and family situations are all too realistic—and often overpowering. Spinelli has created a novel that is an interesting blend of folktale and contemporary realistic fiction. The superboy dazzles people on the football field but struggles to deal with racial strife. Blending the two genres enables Spinelli to deal with difficult issues in an engaging manner—to create a tall tale out of real-life drama.
The contemporary setting of Two Mills, Pennsylvania, could be any American city that is literally and figuratively segregated into black and white districts. Specific details of time and place are intentionally omitted, in order to suggest that this could happen anywhere or anytime, or perhaps that it already has happened.
The story describes the exploits of Jeffrey Magee, whose parents were killed in a bizarre accident when he was three years old. Sent to live with an aunt and uncle who hated each other, Jeffrey endured eight years of that torture before he could not take any more. He ran away from home and just kept running.
The legend says that Jeffrey ran two hundred miles to Two Mills, where he encountered the friendly Amanda Beale and her suitcase of books. Intrigued by both Amanda and her treasured books, Jeffrey decided to stay awhile with her family. The legend has it that Jeffrey, nicknamed “Maniac” by his peers, amazed the entire town with feats of unbelievable acumen. He caught footballs with one hand, saved a kid from mean old Finsterwald, knocked a frogball for a home run, beat a kid named “Mars Bar” Thompson while running backward in a foot race, and untied the giant Cobbles Knot. Jeffrey became famous. His residence with the kind, African American Beale family was resented by local white racists, however, and soon brought trouble for the Beales. Jeffrey could not bear to see his new family hurt; he felt compelled to run away again.
This time he took up residence living among the buffaloes at the local zoo, running during the day and coming home in time for animal food at night. One day, he was discovered by Earl Grayson, the old parkhand who worked at the zoo. Grayson accepted Jeffrey immediately and provided him with physical and emotional nourishment. Jeffrey and Grayson shared stories, humor, sadness, food, work, and much more, developing a strong mutual respect and affection. Jeffrey taught Grayson to read, and Grayson helped Jeffrey feel a sense of belonging. With Grayson, Jeffrey found contentment. Unfortunately, the contentment was short-lived as Grayson died, once again leaving Jeffrey alone and on his own. At the funeral, Jeffrey began running again, this time in the dead of winter as a dissolute, solitary wanderer, waiting for death.
Just when Jeffrey’s life seemed bleakest, two other runaways crossed his path. Because of Hector and Piper, the two young boys whom he coaxed home, Jeffrey wound up living in the twins’ house with their brother, Giant John McNab, ace pitcher and leader of the white Cobra gang. Jeffrey tried to bring some order to the lives of the disheveled McNabs; he helped around the house, played with Hector and Piper, and cajoled the twins into attending school. The Cobras, however, were white racists preparing for war against African Americans. Unable to fathom or accept such hatred, Jeffrey felt out of place in the McNab home. Again, he fled to a life among animals at the zoo.
One day during his usual run, Jeffrey encountered a fellow runner, African American rival Mars Bar Thompson. Through their shared interest in running, the two athletes developed a mutual respect and acceptance of each other. Mars Bar determined to help his new friend. He recruited Amanda Beale, and together they sought Jeffrey out at his zoo abode. Amanda called him to come “home,” and Jeffrey finally knew where he belonged.