24 September 2010

book club bloggers - maniac magee

where do legends come from? are they born, or made? how do they grow? how do they fade?

maniac magee is the story of a twelve-year-old boy named jeffrey who becomes a legend in the highly-segregated [pennsylvanian?] city of two mills. after running away from a stifling home with his aunt and uncle eight years after his parents died, he shows up in two mills and people start talking immediately. he's the kids who runs everywhere. the kid who out-plays the high school sports stars at their own games. the kid who unties all knots. the kid who isn't afraid of finsterwall. the kid who isn't afraid of anything. the kid who doesn't see, or doesn't understand, the sharp, self-imposed distinctions between white and black.

the story is a cycle of gains and losses. at the beginning, jeffrey has lost everything. the first thing he gains back is a friend (amanda beale), and then notoriety and the nickname "maniac." he gains a home. he gains enemies. he gains understanding, and loses naivete. he loses one home, then slowly gains another, and a friend and co-mentor, with the has-been baseball player earl grayson. when jeffrey loses grayson, he gives himself up for lost as well, but it is then that we start to see that, after all that he has gained and lost, he has much now to give. not bad, for a twelve-year-old kid.

i first read maniac magee when i was around ten years old, and re-read it occasionally through middle and early high school. i don't remember much of my initial reactions, other than that it was a book worth reading again. i haven't ever seen the made-for-tv movie, though i'm slightly intrigued (though i think a "real," cinema-oriented movie would be more likely to do it justice, i think...). i could also see this being a good play--the juxtaposition of the intimate theatrical setting and the larger-than-life legend would work really well, i think.

i came up with the questions to consider for this story having not read the book in years, but since re-reading it all i keep coming back to the legend and young hero archetypes throughout the story. i had forgotten that jeffrey was orphaned young, and "re-orphaned"/abandoned/isolated several times throughout the story -- emotionally by his aunt and uncle, literally with the passing of grayson, and socially with the east and west sides' inability to accept his acceptance of everyone. that isolation and orphaning is a powerful tool, one that we see over and over again in literature (harry potter, anyone?). with the lack of parental oversight and expectations, the boy has opportunities to push boundaries beyond what others have. here, what jeffrey perhaps does not do himself, his "maniac" legend does for him.

i don't think that, in any younger readings, i had ever noticed the writing under the story. i really enjoyed it, and i especially enjoyed the tone of the narrator. it called to mind the way kids swap ghost stories or tall tales -- all contributing to the "legend" qualities of the narration -- and i especially enjoyed the way i could get a feel for an unfamiliar storytelling voice ("packing candy," for example -- like "packing heat," a phrase i wasn't familiar with before). in reading through last month's reviews, i recall one blogger saying that she preferred to listen to her books. i think that that would be an intriguing way to experience maniac magee, but i would want my book on tape to be done a certain way. the vocalizations of white and black urbania would have to be done properly to get a true experience; no polished professional readers would be able to be true to the story. in that respect, i think that simply reading the book also doesn't do full justice -- i know that as a white midwestern girl, in all my previous readings the characters' voices sounded to me like midwestern folk. it wasn't until this reading, when i was being intentional about it, when i could hear the "badness" and blackness in mars bar's scowls, imagine grayson with the vestiges of a slow southern drawl, or hear the indignation in amanda when she was provoked into using "ain't" and other colloqualisms in her discomposure.

all in all, this is a book i think i'll always enjoy, and will keeping coming back to every decade or so. =) jeffrey magee could have been any fairly ordinary orphaned kid, but maniac is a legend. he -- or social perception of who he was -- challenged those around him to question whether the way things were needed to be so.

be sure to head on over to the daily snapshot and check out what everyone else has to say!


  1. I love what you said about the writing of the story - I missed the "packing candy" comment - but picked up on the "blackness" of the East Enders. I especially loved Amanda's "ain't" comments right at the end. I felt like her little soliloquy right at the end fleshed out her character more than anything else in the book.

  2. I enjoy looking at this book much more through your eyes than I did through my own!! Your love of Maniac Magee is so clearly articulated in this review and it's contagious.

    "isolation and orphaning is a powerful tool, one that we see over and over again in literature (harry potter, anyone?). with the lack of parental oversight and expectations, the boy has opportunities to push boundaries beyond what others have. here, what jeffrey perhaps does not do himself, his "maniac" legend does for him" = super insightful. (wish I would have written that!)

  3. molly -- if i were coming to this novel for the first time now, i may have left with the same confusion and ambivalence that many other book club bloggers have written about. however, i read it and loved it as a kid, and we all have soft spots for childhood favorites. =)

  4. You points about the orphaning and re-orphaning were great - and reading it for the first time now (and as an adult), they were real heart-string jerkers for me. Each time he was orphaned again after finally opening up his heart, I wanted to yell, "no!" - which I guess is the mark of a well-written book if it sucks the reader into the character that much. I still left it confused and I still don't see myself reading it again, but I'm glad to have read it once. :-)

  5. Thanks a lot for this book recommendation - I also finally managed to post (or better: write!) my comments. The review is great to... I love wondering around all blogs and see the different views on the book.