Virginia Hamilton Nicholas Tucker - Essay

Nicholas Tucker

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

American award-winning children's literature has sometimes been on the over-earnest side; it seems more difficult to win prizes for writing a funny, even irreverent book. What can one expect, therefore, from Virginia Hamilton's M. C. Higgins, The Great, which has scooped this year's pool by landing the National Book Award, the Newbery Medal and the Boston Globe award? Is it three times as good, or merely three times more earnest than previous winners?

Perhaps a bit of both; Virginia Hamilton writes in heavy but compelling prose. Characters lumber rather than leap from the page, but once in focus they make their mark….

Certainly, this is a sincere and highly original work. An English audience may have occasional trouble with the vocabulary—it is worth discovering what exactly a "dude" might be before starting—but generally the story has enough force to keep most adult readers going. But not, surely, most young readers: the opening of the book is almost impenetrable, little use for any child accustomed to giving up after the first difficult page, let alone a whole chapter. For those that stay, there are rewards but some punishment. Emotion sometimes slides into over-intensity. There is an absence of the casual; everything from cooking meals to swimming takes on large significance. Silences between characters usually contain as many arguments as anything they happen to say. Like adolescence itself, so well described in this book, continual excess of feeling, although authentic, is sometimes hard to live with. While I admire Virginia Hamilton's achievement, honesty compels me to add that I was relieved as well as sorry to finish this strongly imagined story.

Nicholas Tucker, "Earnest Endeavour," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1975; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3826, July 11, 1975, p. 766.