Author: Christopher Paul Curtis
Genre: Historical, Young Adult, PoC
Publisher: Wendy Lamb Books
Publication date: January 10 2012
Hardcover: 224 pages
We are a family on a journey to a place called wonderful” is the motto of Deza Malone’s family. Deza is the smartest girl in her class in Gary, Indiana, singled out by teachers for a special path in life. But the Great Depression hit Gary hard, and there are no jobs for black men. When her beloved father leaves to find work, Deza, Mother, and her older brother Jimmie go in search of him, and end up in a Hooverville outside Flint, Michigan. Jimmie’s beautiful voice inspires him to leave the camp to be a performer, while Deza and Mother find a new home, and cling to the hope that they will find Father. The twists and turns of their story reveal the devastation of the Depression and prove that Deza truly is the Mighty Miss Malone.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone but from what I understand, Deza made a brief appearance in a previous, award-winning book by the author Bud, not Buddy.
How did I get this book: Bought
I am absurdly delighted to be writing this review because books like The Mighty Miss Malone are extremely rare in their awesomeness. I loved it. I LOVED IT. I heart Deza Malone with the fire of a thousand suns.
Here is why, in a nutshell:
The storytelling is fabulous: it has great moments, sad moments, and happy moments. It is a great story because it is a story about a family at its heart, and about a country, in the great scheme of things. It is a historical piece but also extremely relevant to the present. The prose is awesome and this review could easily be written around its many wonderful quotes. It features a plethora of superbly written characters, a family that is both ordinary and extraordinary, and a main female character with complexity, agency, voice. It is an inspiring, thoughtful and engaging book.
In fact, the more I think about it the more I want to sing its praises to the entire world.
Deza Malone is the narrator of The Mighty Miss Malone and the youngest member of the Malone family which, by the way, is the only family in the world that – to her knowledge – has a motto of their own: “We are a family on a journey to a place called Wonderful”. Unfortunately for the Malones, their journey to Wonderful is via a strenuous, unrelenting, hard road and they travel through Tragedy Place, Homeless Town and the long Separation Avenue on their way there.
It’s 1936 in Gary, Indiana and the country is still in the throes of the Great Depression. Deza’s father has been doing menial work on and off and things are only getting worse. Her mother is a cleaner for one of the rich families but her job is equally unstable and whilst her older brother Jimmie does the odd job here and there, they live in extreme poverty. Jimmie has stopped growing for lack of nutrients, Deza’s teeth are rotten and she has never visited a dentist, their clothes are falling to pieces and most of their food comes from donations. When the father is badly injured in an accident, he has no choice but to go look for work elsewhere. Things get worse when the mother is laid off, they become homeless and the family sets out to find the father and reunite the family – whatever it takes.
For all of the above sadness, this is a hopeful, uplifting, romantic and at times, extremely funny book – and it’s all because of the Malones, their frustrations and hopes:
Roscoe is the father – a smart man who dreams of being a carpenter. He loves alliterations and his children are supposed to refer to him as Dearest Delightful Daddy or Fine Friendly Father Figure. The mother is Peggy – or the Marvellous Mammalian Matriarch – equally intelligent, resourceful and determined. Jimmie – Genuine Gentle Jumpin’ Giant – is the oldest son, loyal to his family and an extremely gifted singer.
And then of course, we have Deza, the Mighty Miss Malone. She is an energetic, smart 12 year old who takes great pride on being the best student at her school and a member of the Malone family.
As Deza herself puts when writing an essay for school:
My most endearing trait, and being as modest as I am, I had to ask my brother Jimmie for this, is that I have the heart of a champion, am steady as a rock and can be counted on to do what is required. Jimmie also said I am the smartest kid he has ever met, but my all-encompassing and pervasive humility prevents me from putting that on this list.
My dream is to read every book in the Gary Public Library and to be a teacher who is tough but fair
The core of the story is the Malone family, their hardships and their journey to find each other after they get separated. As the main characters of the book they are an extraordinary family, and characters that are well-developed and complex. Unlike my supremely clumsy attempt to pin them down in the few lines above, the author takes his time to draw them in depth. As such, the family has its moments of despair, of fury, of making mistakes and paying for them. Deza for example, comes to learn that she can defend her older brother against bullies and that she likes it, she likes to fight and punch people – because she realises she loves to feel powerful and in charge. At the same time, she doesn’t like this side of herself because she understands that she often reacts impulsively and she believes that fighting is wrong.
These are also extremely ordinary people when considering the larger picture. They are not the only family to go through these hardships as theirs is a plight that afflicted an entire nation. Beyond that, the author also incorporates African American history in the narrative and reveals the pervasive racism in society. One of the greatest moments in the book – and in history – deals with the expectations and hopes of African Americans for the Joe Louis–Max Schmeling boxing match.
This brings me to possibly my favourite aspect of the book. Beyond history and family, the story is also Deza’s journey to awareness. Just before the great match, she is told by a friendly white librarian that Joe Louis is “such a credit to your race” and has to grasp the full meaning behind this sentence. In a similar fashion, she has always been an A+ student at her old school and she is extremely enthusiastic about learning. But when joining a new school whose teachers are primarily white, she finds herself getting grades no higher than C, her teachers don’t call on her when she raises her hand and she becomes an uninterested student as a consequence. In that moment, she finds solace in the books she loves so much – Deza is a keen reader – but the more she reads, the more she realises that she hardly sees herself reflected in the stories she loves so much:
When I was in Gary and I would read novels I used to put myself right in the middle of the story. I knew it was a great book when it felt like the author was writing about me. Some of the time I’d get snapped out of the book when I read things that I couldn’t pretend were about me, even if I had the imagination of Mr. William Shakespeare.
Words like ‘her pale, luminescent skin’ or ‘her flowing mane of golden hair’ or ‘her lovely, cornflower-blue eyes’ or ‘the maiden fair.’ I would stop and think, No, Deza, none of these books are about you.
This passage is all the more heartbreaking when we consider that nearly 80 years later, whitewashing and underrepresentation of People of Colour in literature are still an unfortunate reality. Thankfully we have books such as The Mighty Miss Malone which is a bright, shiny light of sheer awesome – a plain good story that is also an important one.
In conclusion: The Mighty Miss Malone is a Superlative Stupendous Story and a Totally Awesome Book.
Notable Quotes/ Parts: The passage below is one of my favourites. It is super sad (it’s the aftermath of the accident that makes Roscoe so ill – he also lost his front teeth which causes him to lisp) but also very funny and then it continues to become poignant. This is a small excerpt from said sequence:
I kissed father’s fevered forehead three times and said, “Kisses…kisses…kisses make you stronger.”
One day when I kissed him the coolness of his forehead surprised me. His eyes blinked open and he smiled, “Yeth, my Darling Daughter Detha, it worked, your kisseth have made me thtronger.”
I plopped down on his chest and hugged him. “Oh, Father! That’th juth what I wanted. Welcome back, my Deareth Delightful Daddy!”
For the first time in a million years my father laughed! It was a rusty old laugh, but it was a laugh, and it felt like chains breaking off of him. It made the hairs on my neck stand up.
“Oh,” he said, “how tharper than a therpent’th tooth it ith to have a thankleth, bratty little child. You’re actually going to thit there and mock your poor Deareth Delightful Daddy’th new lithp?”
I kissed him again and again and said, “Yeth, yeth, yeth! And it really ith about time you pulled yourthelf together, mithter! But I’m not mocking you.”
“No? Well, it thure thoundth like mockery.” He put his hand over his chest. “And it thrure feelth like mockery to my heart.”
I looked to see if he was serious. “No, Father it isn’t, it comes from a book I read.”
He coughed a couple of times, then said, “I know the book, it’th called How To Be Dithrethpectful and Abuthive to a Good Man.”
Rating: 9 – Damn Near Perfect
Reading Next: When We Were Executioners by J.M. McDermott
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