Study Guide

M.C. Higgins, the Great Change

By Virginia Hamilton

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Two years ago bulldozers had come to make a cut at the top of Sarah's Mountain. They began uprooting trees and pushing subsoil in a huge pile to get at the coal. As the pile grew enormous, so had M.C.'s fear of it. (1.100)

Nothing says change quite like bulldozers cutting a mountaintop down for some coal. It's like industrialization has finally come to the Higgins (even though it's the 1960s).

"Oh," M.C. said, and then: "Are her greens any good this year?"

"Nothing's any good this year," Ben replied. "My daddy says it will get worse with mining going on everywhere." (1.92-93)

The fact that the Killburns' greens are going bad is another way to see the change strip-mining brings. It's also a deeper way of understanding that change since the mining alters even the quality of food the Killburns eat. They may more or less be organic farmers, but what good is it all when the strip-mining ruins the very water and soil used for farming?

"Anyhow, here's the part you're waiting for: He had on some of the prettiest boots I ever did see. A real baby-soft leather, man, and shining like two black stars."

"And the hat was leather, too?" M.C. asked.

"The hat was suede," Ben said. "And the jacket was suede, too. And the pants must of cost more than thirty dollars." They sat above the stream in awed silence, with great, still trees leaning near. (1.115-118)

That's James Lewis the boys are talking about. Everything about him does seem to signal change, but the irony is that James Lewis doesn't really bring change at all. He's all about not changing anything, and his recordings are about preserving the folk songs of the Appalachians. Nothing else.

Suddenly he was aware of the deep whine of machines in the hills behind Sarah's to the north. He raised his arm so that his hand seemed to slide over the perfect roll and curve of the hill range before him to the south. He fluffed the trees out there and smoothed out the sky. All was still and ordered, the way he liked to pretend he arranged it every day. (2.19)

Doesn't it seem like M.C. is trying to "lay hands" and "work magic" on the mountains just like Ben said the Killburn men were doing in response to all the strip-mining on the mountain? And really, who would blame him for trying to create order out of impending chaos? Even if he's just playing?

M.C.: "So you can't have a crane and you can't have a union 'cause you are day labor."

His daddy: "That's right."

M.C.: "So why don't you get a strip-mining machine? They don't care if you are day labor or if you are union."

His daddy: "They ain't machines."

M.C.: "They machines just the same as a crane."

His daddy: "They don't handle steel. They ain't machines."

M.C.: "They handle the earth."

His daddy: "They ain't machines."

M.C.: "So what are they, Daddy?"

His daddy: "They a heathen. A destroyer. They ain't machines." (3.32-41)

Jones is sounding apocalyptic. A strip-mining machine is a "heathen," "a destroyer," and not just a machine. But is Jones exaggerating? Aren't the strip-mining machines bearers of destruction, things that will change everything about the present and the past?

M.C. had heard of Harlem. Heard somewhere that there were as many black people in Harlem as equaled the whole population of Cincinnati. He didn't knot if it was true or not.

Wonder if it is. Wonder if I ever will see it. (10.26-27)

Social change—especially for black people—is something that has totally passed M.C. by. It's the 1960s, the beginning of the heyday for Civil Rights in America, but M.C.'s just hearing about Harlem as a black enclave (which, by the way, has been around since the early 1900s).

"You going to eat that rabbit for supper?" Ben asked him. Something of their friendship of a few hours ago passed between them. Ben, innocent, and learning from M.C. But on the Mound, somehow that friendship was changing. (12.173)

Ben's and M.C.'s friendship is changing because on the Mound Ben's the more knowledgeable one. Or at least his family is. The Killburns live in a completely different way from the Higgins, and even though M.C. feels weird while he's there, he also recognizes that the Killburns' way of living isn't necessarily a bad one. For one, they have more food than Ben has ever seen. Plus, there's Lurhetta—she sides with Ben, which throws everything off-kilter with the boys.

"I come so far," Lewis said gently, "because I suspected that voice had to be out here." He bent down on one knee next to M.C. "No. I knew it was here, like these hills were here unspoiled and beautiful in my father's time. See, so I come back to save her voice before it goes, the way these hills are going. But M.C., I never meant to hurt you or anyone, that's the God's truth. And I guess I have." (13.73)

Lewis is like the grim reaper signaling imminent death. Of course, his intentions are good. Who can fault the fact that he wants to preserve the voices of the hills before the hills become unlivable and their traditions and folksongs disappear? So it's kind of ironic: On one hand, Lewis is all about not changing anything; on the other hand, his very presence means things are definitely going to change—and not in a good way either.

His pants were muddy and his shirt was wet from hitting branches. The fog wasn't going to clear and no sun would come to dry up the night rains. But the thickness of mist would get thinner and thinner, until it had the look of metal with no shine.

My pole.

He'd forgot even to glance at it. (14.53-55)

You know M.C. has changed when he doesn't even remember to look at his pole. Not clear on why that is? Get thee to the "Symbolism" section, stat.

There began to take shape a long, firm kind of mound. The children fed it. M.C. shoveled and Ben packed it. In the immense quiet of Sarah's Mountain late in the day, they formed a wall. And it was rising. (14.237)

It's a new generation bringing change to Sarah's Mountain—or more accurately, this generation of kids is bringing action. It's not just the wall they're building that's rising; it's the kids themselves, especially M.C. A loner before, M.C. is now a part of a group, nose to the ground, working to save his homestead. Pretty inspiring, don't you think?

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