Study Guide

M.C. Higgins, the Great Coming-of-Age

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What does she mean, roaming around all by her lonesome? He had to smile. He made a muscle in his arm and felt it jump up hard.

Should I go out there, scare her again? (2.28-29)

M.C. clearly hasn't been around girls much. We can tell because his way of getting a girl to notice him is to "scare" her. You know, kind of like the way a schoolboy teases a girl or tugs her braids to get her attention.

Macie Pearl and M.C.'s brothers could swim well enough to care for themselves in the water.

But if one of them did commence to drown…

Don't think about it. M.C. frowned.

They didn't know how lucky they are. Swimming. Playing. Without a worry for food or nothing. (2.35-38)

You might wonder how much growing up M.C. really has to do when he's already looking after the family and thinking about how to survive as a family. In many practical ways, he's already an adult.

"I can't leave it." M.C. spoke eagerly, now that he knew that the Dude intended them to leave. Lewis frowned, staring up Sarah's final slope. "To leave a place," he said gently, "you'd best leave everything behind; all your possessions, including memory. Traveling's not as easy as it's made out to be. See, look army poor old boots." He laughed and held up his trouser leg so M.C. could take a good look at the ruin caused by travel. (2.220)

James Lewis is showing M.C. one way of growing up—leaving home and everything about it behind. It's the classic bildungsroman journey. The interesting thing is that M.C. doesn't follow that classic storyline because he doesn't leave home.

M.C. raised his hands in front of his chin and held them about a foot apart with palms facing each other. He knew his daddy would want to play the game, although they hadn't played it in many months. Years ago it had been the hardest kind of game for M.C. to take. Jones had tried to slap M.C.'s face hard, as he would attempt to do now. Only then M.C. never had been fast enough to chop his father's hands away. He always ended up crying.

M.C.: "Stop it. Stop it, Daddy."

His daddy: "Going to make you so tough, anyone try to worry you will break his bones." (2.61-63)

For Jones, becoming a man means being tough enough to go up against anyone who might beat M.C. up. Maybe that's where M.C. gets his practical, hard-knocks view of the world—his daddy. Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

"Okay," Jones spoke calmly. "But you get to thinking because you can swim and because of that pole, you are some M.C. Higgins, the Great."

"I never thought it!" M.C. said.

"Just mind who was it taught you to swim and who was it gave you the pole," Jones said. (3.112-114)

This passage contains the title of the book, so you know it just has to be important. In this case, Jones is telling M.C. what we all already know: M.C.'s whole "the Great" deal is kind of arrogant. He could probably be taken down a peg or two on his road to becoming a mature adult. But still, is M.C.'s self-naming just a way for him to feel bigger and better than his father? Is he actually insecure about his identity?

"Wherever I go, I try to make friends," she went on, "but some kids just aren't to be trusted. I never know what kind I've run into until it's too late."

"Who you saying is a child?" M.C. said. Angry, he wanted to sound older. Instead, his words came out as though he had asked an innocent question. (8.46-47)

Leave it to Lurhetta to put M.C. in his place without even meaning to. Next to Lurhetta, M.C. is a kid. He is younger, but not just that—he knows way less about the outside world. M.C., at this point, is all wrapped up in his solo, nature-boy world, and his lack of social skills makes him seem all of his thirteen young years.

The sound of chatter spilled over him and through him.

And he remembered with sadness, with regret, that the Mound had been the happiest place he'd ever known. No mountain to worry. No past. No ghosts. (11.168-169)

M.C.'s melancholy is a good reminder of how uneven M.C.'s growth into teenager-hood has been and how much location has impacted that growth. M.C. is way more mature than any of the Killburn kids because he's had to take care of so much on his own. The Mound, on the other hand, offers another view of childhood and how it might be spent: with other kids and among adults who take care of stuff like farming and cooking.

Through his blurring anger, he glimpsed his pole in the listless light. Its metal sheen was smooth and sleek and he felt no hate for it as he did for the shack and the girl.

Haven't seen you in forever.

He headed for the pole with a feel for it coming back to him. (14.98-100)

You can't blame M.C. for going back to what he knows best, a.k.a. his pole. He's just experienced his first heartbreak and all. But that pole isn't going to be enough now that he knows what it's like to be into a girl…

"I play with anybody I want," M.C. said. "This is my home. I live here, too." Backing away from Jones toward the front of the house:

"Ben? Hey you, Ben?" He kept his eyes on Jones, who came slowly toward him. (14.180-181)

Finally M.C. challenges his father on his bigotry. This is M.C. truly coming into his own and growing up, not only telling his dad to cut it out, but also admitting who he really is by claiming is friendship with Ben.

Lurhetta, good-by. Good-by, M.C., the Great. 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. (14.235-237)

Even though M.C.'s imagining him and Lurhetta saying bye to each other, M.C.'s basically leaving his old self behind. Instead of the individualist loner, M.C. ends the story in the company of other kids. He needs the help of a community in order to save his home, so what's rising isn't just the wall, but also a new generation of kids, willing to rise up and fight the good fight against things as destructive as strip-mining.

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