Study Guide

M.C. Higgins, the Great The Supernatural

By Virginia Hamilton

The Supernatural

Folks called the Killburns witchy people. Some said that the Killburn women could put themselves in trances and cast out the devil. Killburn men and women both could heal a bad wound by touching, although M.C. had never seen them do it. (1.34)

Do the Killburns have supernatural powers? Or is this just prejudice turning the Killburns into more than what they are—a community of people who are just different from other people?

Not only were they massive but they were entwined with vines as thick as a man's arm.

Maybe the vines were poison ivy grown monstrous from Killburn magic. M.C. liked the idea of witchy vines. (1.57-58)

Who doesn't like the idea of "witchy vines"? Or just magic in general? M.C.'s showing his fanciful side here, though he doesn't always view witchiness so favorably.

Eyeing Ben's witchy hands, M.C. assured himself that the sixth fingers weren't wildly waving and making magic. They were the same as the other ten holding onto the vine. Only they were extra. (1.80)

Ben's extra fingers and toes are literally the embodiment of the supernatural. They are super— as in extra, and they are natural—you know, like all toes and fingers.

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

"What does mining have to do with your mama's vegetables?" M.C. asked.

Ben was silent a moment, as if he didn't want to talk about it.

Reluctantly, he said, "Well, Daddy and Uncle Joe went for miles north and east following the coal seam, looking for mining cuts. They didn't go to Sarah's Mountain because of what your daddy might do. But wherever else, they lay hands on cuts…"

"You mean they thought to work magic on the hills?" M.C. stared at Ben in disbelief.

"I'm just telling you what they had to do," Ben said. "Daddy says it didn't work straight off but that maybe it will slow the ruin down."

"Naturally it didn't work," M.C. said. "That's why folks stay clear of your father, for doing things like that."

"He just can't find a way to heal a mountain is all," Ben said. Looking at M.C., his eyes were anxious, innocent. (1.93-100)

On one hand, M.C. seems to believe that the Killburns are "witchy." But when Ben brings up a situation where they actually are trying to "work magic," M.C. doesn't believe it. His contradictory stance toward the Killburns' powers is confusing, right? Are they magical? Are they not? Ben believes in their magic, but then, he's a Killburn and he's "innocent." So what are we supposed to believe? Why all this mystery and confusion about the Killburns' abilities?

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. (2.15)

So it's not just the Killburns who have "magic." M.C. does, too—or at least, he's definitely pretty mystical. Whether or not M.C. really does call up Sarah's ghost, what's more important is how connected M.C. is to his history and tradition. It may appear supernatural, but another way to look at it is just that M.C.'s power to imagine the past is as powerful as a storyteller's. He makes the past into a living story.

As he watched the shadowy figures in the kitchen, his thoughts seemed to float away from him. He fell into a kind of reverie as he heard, deep in his mind, a wild creature's roar… He saw something, a silhouette there in the forest waiting for him. Or was he the image, waiting for another part of himself to reach it? He tried to move toward it when a numbing cold rose around his ankles. It climbed to his knees and then his neck. His leg muscles jumped, but he could not run. He was rooted to the mountainside as the sour and bitter mud of the spoil oozed into his mouth and nostrils. At the last moment before he suffered and died, he knew he was not outside. He was still in his cave, his fingers on the buttons of his shirt. (3.128)

Are you wondering what's going on here? There are two ways to look at this. Maybe M.C. is just deep into his daydream of the spoil heap killing him, or maybe he's projecting himself into the future. Whatever is going on, you've got to wonder why the author is making M.C. into this supernatural-ish character. In fact, he seems more "witchy" than Ben Killburn.

"He sets out milk for the milk snakes just to see them slither. He lets the garters sun and have their babies on the cement of the icehouse step and feed off the gardens. He don't mind any kind of snake, can handle them like they were puppies. Copperheads, he talks to and if they don't listen right, he grinds their heads into the ground."

Uneasily, M.C. laughed. "How come he fell out with the green-grass snakes?" he asked.

"They did something wrong, most likely," Ben said. "Probably made up with them now, though." (11.139-141)

We don't know if we can add much to this except that, in addition to Mr. Killburn's clear affinity for snakes, there is a kind of creepiness to the whole thing. It's hard not to think about the Garden of Eden (especially since the Mound is so full of fruits and vegetables) and the special importance the snake had in ruining Eden for Adam and Eve. So M.C.'s uneasiness about Mr. Killburn in this scene may also have something to do with the way snakes have popularly been portrayed since Biblical times…

In death, the rabbit looked to be peacefully resting on its side, gazing down at the stream below. Except that each of its four feet had been sliced cleanly away. A rosy stain of blood covered each stump.

I killed it clean. Not like that.

He searched the Mound.

Dirty devils! What kind of power, if they need rabbit's feet for luck? Be glad to get away from here. (12.200-203)

Okay, this is a little spooky. M.C. assumes that the Killburn men cut his dead rabbit's feet off, but we don't really know who did it because there isn't proof that the Killburns did it (plus, they say they don't harm animals). So what's going on here? What's the point of this scene? It does seem like it's kind of a bad omen, doesn't it?

Now he asked the knife, "Why did she do it?"

And the knife said in the voice of Lurhetta: "Follow me."

But which way? How do I know how to get to you?

The knife would say no more. (14.83-86)

Okay, we don't think the knife is actually speaking to M.C., but then again, this whole book does seem to allow for the possibility that M.C. may somehow feel guided by Lurhetta's spirit through the medium of her knife.

Another way to think about this whole scene between M.C. and the knife is this: Maybe M.C. isn't hearing Lurhetta exactly but more like his imagination of Lurhetta. Maybe he has dreamed her to sound and think a certain way. So in other words, he's actually talking to and guiding himself.

"No doctors, only in Harenton, just like it is now. But there was the Mound. I was over there that day with her. We'd just got back here, Jones and I, and she was my neighbor. I liked her. I'd heard the tales of their power, but I paid no attention. Until farmer come running up all covered with blood. The child, so white and blood so much on his leg, you couldn't see it. And she—"

"Who?" M.C. said.

"Viola Killburn," Banina said. "Why, she simply took the child and arranged him on the ground. He appeared death-still. She didn't touch the wound gushing blood all over. But move her hand over it like searching for something above it in the air. All of a sudden, the hand stop and tremble like over a hump and then move slowly the length of the wound curve.

"Vi had her eyes on that wound in the strangest look I never will ever forget. Only her lips move. Secret prayers of the Bible, they say, but I don't know," Banina said. "I know this. The blood gushing away that child's lifetime clotted all in a minute. The wound ceased to flow. It turned gray and darker. It heal." (7.53-56)

If that's not magic, then we don't know what is. How does this fit into your general assessment of magic in the book? Does it throw a wrench in your thinking or does it support your hunch that magic is real?

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