Daddy says it will one day. He loved the mountain, its long, lingering dawns.
But he frowned, squinting off at the hills with night still huddled in their folds. Now it won't ever be mine. (1.8-10)
Is the mountain M.C.'s? If Daddy says so, then of course it is, right? Not that M.C. is wrong or anything, but his thought process kind of shows how young he is (which makes sense, since it's the beginning of the book). He still looks to his father as the authority figure in the family, and whatever he says, goes.
And now M.C. knew how he could get around his daddy and get his mama and his brothers and sister off the dangerous mountain. The idea had come to him after he heard about the Dude. (1.21)
This is right at the beginning of the book, and already we get the idea that M.C. feels responsible for the entire family. Why else would he even be racking his brain for a way to get off their mountain?
"Grandaddy came here in his mama's, Sarah's, arms," Jones said quietly. "She wasn't free yet. The war wasn't started but it was coming. Only Sarah couldn't wait. I expect she ran until she found a place big enough to free her troubles. Just the clothes on her back, that half-dead child and the song she sang to him, my granddaddy. He grew up and sang it to my daddy. And he to me." (4.58)
Jones is explaining to M.C. about the time right before the Civil War, when Great Grandmother Sarah escaped to the mountain and started the Higgins clan there. He's also explaining to M.C. the history behind a family song he's just sung to M.C. So it's not just land that gets passed down from father to son—it's music, too. Kind of unexpected of Jones, if you think about how Banina is the musical one in the family.
His father, finding him exhausted, vomiting on the river bank: "You think that river is some mud puddle you can wade right into without a thought?" And then, his father beating him with his belt: "A boat wouldn't go into that water not knowing how the currents run. (Whack!) I'm not saying you can't swim it (Whack!), as good a swimmer as you are. (Whack!) But you have to study it, you have to practice. You have to know you're ready. (Whack-whack-whack!) I'll even give you a prize, anything that won't cost me to spend some money. (Wham!)" (1.28)
This is our first introduction to what Jones is like… and it's definitely clear that he's not a coddler. But you've got to wonder: Is M.C.'s inability to swim across the Ohio River really worth a beating? (Is anything worth a beating like the one Jones is giving M.C.?)
As if in a trance, M.C. gazed out over the rolling hills. He sensed Sarah moving through undergrowth up the mountainside. As if past were present. As if he were a ghost, waiting, and she, the living. The sensation startled him out of his trance. Fearfully he willed Sarah back to her grave.
At once his father and mother, brothers and sister sprang to life in his mind. (2.14-15)
Who do you opt for—the living or the dead? This tension between the past and the present comes up again at the end of the book, when M.C. digs up his ancestor's burial ground to make a wall. Why is it an important tension at all though? Why is M.C. so easily overtaken by thoughts of his dead Great Grandmother Sarah?
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)
M.C. is your classic oldest child. Even though he's only thirteen, he bears the burden of looking after the younger kids and shares the worries of his parents.
M.C. did as he was told. And yet he felt a sullen anger at his father and an abiding admiration at the same time, he didn't know why. The hard-edge pain at his waist was now a dull kind of throb. He hosed Jones from head to foot, aware that he and his father greatly resembled one another. (3.115)
Is M.C. angry and admiring of his father because his father has authority over him? Is it that his father, just beforehand, wrestled M.C. to the ground? Or is it that he is similar to Jones? How would you feel if you had a rough, physically violent, but still caring relationship with your father?
"But you are all one family?"
"We are all relatives," Ben told her. "Just a few, maybe not so related. Sometimes a friend with nothing and no one." (12.21-22)
What a radically different concept of family than what the Higgins have. It's not that just anyone can belong to Ben's large, extended family—it's that they accept strangers in the first place. Ben's description of his family shows how overly insular the Higgins are, which also goes to show how the Higgins' legacy may not survive like the Killburns may. That's because the Higgins kids are completely isolated from the outside world. How would they continue the Higgins line if they never marry out?
"A gravestone?" Ben asked.
"Yes. He didn't have to do that," M.C. said, in the faintest voice, "but I'm glad he did."
"Let me see it," Harper said.
"See it," M.C. said. "It's Great-grandmother Sarah's." The markings were worn but the name was still readable.
"Why did your father bring it?" Ben wanted to know.
"Because," M.C. said. He thought a long moment, smoothing his hand over the stone. Finally he smiled. "To make the wall strong." (14.225-230)
Instead of letting the past haunt M.C., he puts it to use. All of a sudden, the past isn't some vague, spooky or abstract story; it's a gravestone that's going to make their wall stronger so that it can protect the living. M.C.'s showing his ability to put the past behind him in a purposeful way that, if you think about it, is actually respectful of his dead ancestors. He's preserving their legacy by preserving his family and homestead.
M.C. watched, his hand tight on the knife. If Ben had to outrun Jones, M.C. knew he would throw the knife to wound. Ever so carefully, he shifted the knife and held the blade point between thumb and finger. But he's your father. Not if he runs off Ben. (14.188-190)
M.C. finally chooses Ben over his family's bigoted principles. In so doing, he actually pushes his father to be a better man, which just goes to show that putting family first doesn't have to mean agreeing with family about everything. Sometimes it's a good idea to stand up for your own values.