Review originally posted on my livejournal account here
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As I mentioned in my review of Bigger Than a Breadbox, I sometimes get my hands on ARCs of books when Random House sends them my way, but I get them because I'm a bookseller, not a book blogger. Other employees at Chapters also get ARCs of course, but sometimes they resign and Random House is unaware, so they send them a package to the store anyway, and the ARC is rendered homeless. The Mighty Miss Malone was such an ARC and after seeing such a good review of it on The Book Smugglers I decided to bring it home with me and read it ASAP.
In this novel, readers follow Deza, the youngest of two kids in a African-American family during the Great Depression. Deza is an incredibly smart and verbose child with a good head on her shoulders. She loves her family above all else and they're tight-knit and are always looking out for one another.
Despite the sad subject matter of this book, it was still very uplifting and optimistic. The motto for the Malone family is "We are a family on a journey to a place called wonderful" (which I love love love that quote) for a reason. That journey however is clouded by many hardships, such as being separated from one another due to financial strains, having to be homeless, and of course, being discriminated against for being African-American. In this regard, reading The Mighty Miss Malone was heart-breaking at times and I wanted nothing more than to see them get through out it all and come out okay, and this is because Curtis paints a very vivid picture of this family that is at once ordinary and extraordinary.
First we have Deza, who is the narrator of the story. Like I mentioned above, Deza is very smart and has a thirst for knowledge as well as verboseness when she writes. One small aspect of the story I really liked was that while Curtis succeeds at characterizing Deza as intelligent, she still gets chastised for her liberal use of the thesaurus in her writing by her teacher; Deza's not smart just because she can use big words -- she's smart because of just how much LOVES learning, and using the dictionary and thesaurus is a way for her to sate that thirst. I also loved Deza's journey of awareness that she experiences: how she realizes that she likes fighting and being in control, and how she struggles with the other voice she hears in her head which tries to persuade her to do bad things LIKE fight other kids.
The rest of the family is equally well characterized: Deza's brother Jimmy who has a knack for singing and wants nothing more than to help provide for his family in the absence of his father; Deza's mother Peggy who loves her husband more than anything and will DO anything to find him and be with him; and Roscoe, who will do anything to supply his family with the care they need even at the cost of being separated from them. My heart ached for this family and those measly sentences I provided do not do them justice; they are rounded and full characters who came to life and felt like they could have been very real people.
Curtis also achieved making this an Important Book without being didactic or heavy-handed. There's racism in this book yes, and it's pointed out and noted that it's bad (because duh, it is) but it's like LOOK AT THE RACISM GUYS ISN'T IT BAD!? LOOK LOOK LOOK. It's much more subtle, and at times even unnoticeable to the characters in the book. For example, a friendly white librarian points out to Deza that a prominent African-American boxer is a "credit to her race". At first, Deza takes it as the compliment that the librarian intended it to be, but when she later tells her parents about it, she realizes that isn't quite as nice as either she or the librarian thought it was. This subtlety is perfect for the middle grade audience who is reading this book, as it doesn't dismiss children's intelligence, but it also points out very important issues that should be brought to their intention without painting white people with a very broad brush: racism was (and is) so imbued in society that is comes about even when not intended. I just think it was all handled wonderfully.Final Verdict:
This novel, while at times hopeful and fun, was also very sad and made my heart ache for the Malone family that is the heart and soul of this book. And they have SO MUCH heart and soul -- I loved them all to death, faults and all, and they do all make mistakes and pay for them. But they felt so real to me, so well realized and so likable, that I wanted nothing more than for them to just be okay. This is a wonderful historical fiction novel that I think the middle grade audience will still be able to relate to, as the historical aspects of the novel are surprisingly relevant to today as well. The main character Deza Malone has a wonderful voice, and reading about her love for her family and watching them stick together through such horrible times was (as I mentioned above) uplifting in its sadness. I'd love to check out other novels by Curtis, especially Bud Not Buddy (which this novel is a loose spin-off of).