Monday, November 28, 2011

Maniac Magee

by Jerry Spinelli
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers; 1999, 180 pages

This is a very moving book about overcoming prejudice that also works well as a read-aloud. The title character's real name is Jeffrey Lionel Magee and his hometown is Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania. When he is suddenly orphaned because his parents' train plunges off a bridge, his aunt and uncle can not give Jeffrey the love an orphan needs because their house (one cannot call it a home) is permeated with their disdain for each other. When the boy can not stand it any longer, he runs off into the night, and never comes back. His running becomes one of the things that makes him legendary.

Jeffrey Lionel Magee wanders for a year until he comes into Two Mills, a town near his hometown. He becomes Maniac Magee when he joins first the local high school football team's practice and then a Little League baseball game and excels without even trying. In true tall-tale fashion, Maniac becomes a local legend in these and many other different ways, all without any deliberate attempt to show off. What makes his legendary status even more amazing is that he is still just an ordinary boy with a desperate need for love.

His need to find a home, to find a real family of some kind, brings him into the life of a chaotic but loving black family, the Beales, on one side of Two Mills; an old has-been former baseball pitcher who works as the caretaker of the local zoo; and a paranoid white family who are waiting for the great race war to start. The ways in which Maniac changes the people he lives with, and is in turn changed by them, brought tears to my eyes when I heard it read out loud in the audiobook version.

CAUTION AND CONCLUSION: At least one of Jerry Spinelli's novels (Stargirl) imples that we are all the products of evolution, and this one never brings any specific Christian resolution to the divisions in Two Mills. However, the book does show the Sunday worship of the Beales as living and beautiful, and Maniac's greatest yearning - to find a home - echoes, on  the earthly level, the deepest heaven-directed desires of all those whom God makes His children. Finally, Maniac's difficult navigation of the racial and geographic divide of Two Mills challenges us as Christians to consider how we, with so much greater reasons for unity, can break down the barriers between races, nations, and classes. A great book to share between children and their parents or teachers.

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