Study Guide

Maniac Magee Family

By Jerry Spinelli

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"Maniac Magee was not born in a dump. He was born in a house, a pretty ordinary house, right across the river from here, in Bridgeport. And he had regular parents, a mother and a father." (1.5)

Well, this doesn't sound much like the start of a legend to us. How would Maniac's life have been different had his parents lived? Would he have been able to learn as much about life and love as he does?

"Aunt Dot and Uncle Dan hated each other, but because they were strict Catholics, they wouldn't get a divorce. Around the time Jeffrey arrived, they stopped talking to each other. Then they stopped sharing." (1.7)

So Maniac's first memories of family life are of hatred. Awesome! Not the first thing that most of think of when we think of family, thankfully.

"As whistles go, Mrs. Pickwell's was one of the all-time greats. It reeled in every Pickwell kid for dinner every night." (6.2)

Getting called home to a safe, warm, happy place with good food every night, where your friends are always welcome? Sounds like a family to us.

"Mrs. Beale smiled. 'Yeah, I know you all right. You'll be nothing but Jeffrey in here. But—' she nodded to the door—'out there, I don't know.'" (14.25)

Isn't that what a family is, a place you can be your true self, no matter what happens out in the real world? Where Maniac can be Jeffrey, where Mars Bar can be … whatever his real name is?

"So she put a stop to it right then and there and slapped that trash-talking mouth. Her lip started to quiver before his, but before she could say 'I'm sorry,' he was hugging and squeezing her and burying his face in her chest and sobbing, 'I love you...I love you...'" (15.19)

Having lived without a family most of his life, Maniac has missed out on more than just warm cookies and milk after school. He's also missed out on the discipline that's most effective coming from those who love us. (And the special joys of groaning "MOOOOOOM," when she embarrasses you.)

"Maniac thought of Thanksgivings past, of sitting around a joyless table, his aunt and uncle as silent and lifeless as the mammoth bird they gnawed on...'And we want to thank you for this warm house and for our own little family here and for Grayson learning to read...And one more thing. If you could find some way to let the Beale family know I'm wishing them a happy Thanksgiving, I'd really appreciate it." (29.11)

Maniac is starting to get it: a family isn't about how big a house you have or how much is on the table, it's about who's around the table with you.

"The boy could not take his eyes off the glove. The old man could not take his eyes off the boy. The record player finished the 'Christmas Polka' and clicked off, and for a long time there was silence." (31.13)

We all know that kids need family. But older folk need families too, and Grayson was just as lonely as Maniac was, and he benefits from their little family just as much as Maniac does. Think about that next time you pass a retirement home.

"Dreams pursued memories, courted and danced and coupled with them and they became one, and the gaunt, beseeching phantoms that called to him had the rag-wrapped feet of Washington's regulars, and the faces of his mother and father and Aunt Dot and Uncle Dan and the Beales and Earl Grayson. In that bedeviled army there would be no more recruits. No one else would orphan him." (33.11)

It's not all Cup-o-Soup and polka dancing. When you really love and trust someone, it hurts to lose them. A lot. And at this point, Maniac is afraid to love anyone, because he's afraid to be hurt.

"Oh, he prodded and persuaded and inspired and bribed the boys to do right, but he never forced them, never commanded, never shouted. Because to do so would be parental, and he was not yet ready for that. How could he act as a father to these boys when he himself ached to be somebody's son?" (39.11)

As much as we'd like Russell and Piper to get a firm talking to, and maybe a little "scared straight" it's also good to know that Maniac is smart enough to hold back. He knows he's too young to be a father figure, because he has too much left to learn as someone's son.

"He knew that finally, truly, at long last, someone was calling him home." (46.26)

It's not like Amanda's never tried to get Maniac home before. So what's the difference? In the end, she doesn't give him a choice. We know that Maniac has finally found his family because they're not going let him go. (18.4)

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