M. C. Higgins, the Great by Virginia Hamilton

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M. C. Higgins, the Great Summary

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

In M. C. Higgins, the Great, the title character, a tall, athletic, thoughtful black teenager who lives in the Cumberland Mountains, must come to terms with conflicting allegiances, to his father and the traditions of his family, on one hand, and to his mother and the younger children in the family, on the other. Faced with a threat to the family that is beyond his control, M. C. learns that being an adult means doing one’s limited best in an imperfect world.

Although M. C. Higgins, the Great moves chronologically, the author also moves backward and forward in time by tracing the thoughts of her characters. Thus the first chapter introduces the protagonist, M. C. Higgins, who has wakened to watch the sun rise over the mountains where he lives. There is great joy in his communion with nature; there is great pleasure in anticipating the future, when, according to his father, M. C. will own Sarah’s Mountain, where the family has lived for generations, where they have died and been laid to rest. As he looks around him, M. C. feels the same sense of attachment to the past that impels his father, Jones Higgins, to insist on remaining where his roots are. Yet, unlike his father, M. C. can face the possibility of a different life, far away from Sarah’s Mountain. M. C. cannot help wondering what the outside world is like. More immediately, he is afraid that the unstable spoil heap located higher on their mountain, which was left by irresponsible strip miners, will slide down and bury the Higgins home, perhaps killing the family in the process.

The first chapter of the book takes M. C. through what begins as a typical day. He checks the traps that he sets for rabbits, game for the family table. He seeks out his best friend, Ben Killburn, a slight, gentle boy who must meet with M. C. secretly because the Killburns are distrusted and feared for their “witchy” powers. Together, the boys roam through the woods, swinging from vines and branches, taking joy in their natural surroundings. Later, M. C. sits on the pole his father had erected for him as a prize after he swam the nearby Ohio River. From his perch on the bicycle seat attached to the top of the pole, M. C. watches out for the younger children, for whom he is responsible when their parents are at work. Sometimes he does dizzying acrobatics, pedaling like a madman; at other times, he sits still, like the king of the mountain, observing everything that is happening in his world.

That world, however, is not as permanent as it appears to be. The strip miners have already intruded, scarring the landscape and poisoning the water. A more innocent intruder is the stranger with a tape recorder, James K. Lewis, who has been wandering through the hills to capture the music of the local people before it is lost or becomes tainted by outside influences. M. C. is watching for him, because he knows that his mother, Banina Higgins, has the most beautiful voice in the mountains, and he thinks that if she could just get a recording contract, the family could afford to flee the mountain before the spoil heap descends. From his pole, M. C. also spots another intruder, Lurhetta Outlaw, who later in the story shares an adventure with him and threatens his friendship with Ben.

The events in this novel fall into two categories: those which, as part of an established pattern, give the mountain people their sense of security, and those which interrupt the pattern, demanding a response or effecting a change, for better or for worse. The Higgins children, for example, can plan on seeing their father pedaling home for a hasty lunch with them and on hearing their mother’s distant yodel, then her soaring songs, as she trudges toward them at evening. As M. C. discovers, the Killburns, too, have their rituals, their work in the garden while the children play above them in elaborate safety nets, their careful system of preserving and serving vegetarian foods, and their acts of healing, which even include the...

(The entire section is 1,220 words.)