Thursday, May 30, 2013

Review: Maniac Magee, by Jerry Spinelli

Jerry Spinelli's Maniac Magee won the Newberry Medal in 1990, and I can imagine that the age group the award is aimed at, late elementary to early middle school, would get more of a kick out of the absurdly goofy scenarios in the story than I did. Reading as an adult, the book seems random and ungrounded, though I will admit it has heart.

At the age of three, Jeffrey Lionel Magee lost his parents. He lived with his uncle and aunt for some time, but their strict Catholic ways left him feeling stifled. So he ran away. Only, unlike other runaway stories, Jeffrey was never caught. In fact, he makes a name for himself in the town of Two Mills, which has a East End where blacks live and a West End where whites live. The name he makes for himself is Maniac Magee. His feats become part of the town's legends, and Spinelli playfully suggests we shouldn't believe all the stories we read about Maniac. This isn't a story, though, where the reader is supposed to guess reality from myth. That would be fruitless. Maniac's feats are as much fantasy as the setting the story takes place in.

Stories are told about Maniac's untiring ability to run endlessly. He can untie even the most difficult of knots. He is allergic to pizza. He also frog bunted an inside the park home run against the best pitcher in Two Mills. Yes, ridiculous. As a kid I can imagine I would have hooted with laughter. These stories seem to exist simply for the amusement of younger readers, but as this story is made up of random bits of such tales, it fails to feel cohesive.

The story deals with themes of homelessness and race. Maniac is known for fearlessly crossing the border between the West End and East End, which are divided on racial lines. Most residents from one end won't mingle with residents on the other end because of the racial tensions. Maniac does more than cross the border, however. He lives in the house of Amanda Beale, a black girl, long enough to become an honorary part of the family. Spending much of his life without a home or a place to learn about social constructs, Maniac doesn't understand the concept of racial tension. This suggests that people are not innately born with racial prejudice, but learn it. Living on the East End, Maniac does learn about racial prejudice, and it chases him away for a time.

Maniac's outsider status allows him to see things others can't. He realizes that households on the West End aren't terribly different from those on the East End. The Beale household is a normal home and there is a feeling of warmth and love. Maniac also experiences the same thing with a large white family that welcomes anybody to join for dinner. And where the white families all believe black households are trashy, Maniac spends a few weeks in a white household trashier than any he's seen on the East End. But because nobody crosses the border as Maniac does, nobody else knows how similar to two sides really are.

Unfortunately the novel doesn't do much with its themes, except maybe the theme of friendship and family. There are some touching moments, particularly when Maniac befriends an older man named Grayson. The novel is most enjoyable when Maniac settles down somewhere, but he's on the move so often the novel feels just as homeless as its title hero. Perhaps that's the point, and maybe I'm missing something. It's not that this is a bad novel, but it's one more geared for the kids than the adults.

No comments:

Post a Comment