Thursday, March 22, 2012

A credit to her race

Christopher Paul Curtis came to "lecture" at my library in 2002. I put lecture in quotes, because he didn't stand behind a podium and read some notes, he grabbed a microphone, roamed the small dais with dreadlocks flying and answered question after question from excited young readers. (Often it was the same question and he was pretty patient ... for a while.) He was like a rock star and I suspect that for a fair number of those readers he was the first black person they ever saw who wrote books. I loved it. I loved Bud, Not Buddy too. Even though I couldn't remember who Deza Malone was (it's been 10 years since I read about Bud Caldwell), I was looking forward to The Mighty Miss Malone. Who would not want to meet that girl on the cover?

Deza kissed Bud when they met in a Hooverville outside of Flint, Michigan. If this scene is reprised in the recent book, I just do not remember hearing it. Curtis was asked by more than one young reader (maybe he was even asked this in Portland) to write a story about Deza. And so he did.

Deza (pronounced DEH-zah) lives with her loving family in Depression-era Gary, Indiana. Her father, Roscoe, calls her his Dar. Daught. Deza. He explains to her the faint praise of being a credit to her race, and why Joe Louis is such a hero to black people. Deza's the smartest kid in her class and she never misses an opportunity to let everyone know. Her heart is good, but she just loves the sound of her own voice. She believes that she can solve all problems that face her. Her family is poor, but they seem to be getting by -- except for the fact that her father's been out of work for a while and her older brother seems to have stopped growing and Deza's teeth are so riddled with cavities that she holds camphor-soaked cloth between them to manage the pain.

Overwhelmed by his inability to provide for his family, Roscoe takes an ill-fated fishing trip on Lake Michigan and disappears. When he is found in a hospital in Chicago, he is not the same man. Soon after coming home, her father leaves again -- declaring that he will find work in his hometown of Flint. Before Roscoe leaves, though, Deza overhears him say that he can't bear to breathe when close to Deza, her breath smells so rotten.

Deza and her family eventually head to Flint as well. They get there by riding the rails and then settling in the Hooverville while her mother looks for work and for her husband. Older brother Jimmie -- who has a beautiful singing voice -- soon disappears as well. Deza wonders if her family will ever be together and happy again.

As I reread what I've written, I see that I've provided a weak synopsis and no flavor at all of Curtis' trademark humor and compassion. (I'm on vacation, if that's an excuse.) Deza is funny and her narrative is full of some delightful malapropisms (all of which are written down on a piece of paper where I am not) -- the only one I remember is her describing her brother as "disillusional." She has a devil sitting on her shoulder telling her to do things she knows she shouldn't in a very funny voice. But, round about the time her father disappears, we begin to lose Deza as a heroine -- her humor, smarts, and generally sunny outlook gradually vanish, the coincidences mount up, and the book kind of limps to a close.

The excellent Bahni Turpin narrates Deza's story. She reads the novel with the right amount of smarts and with a busybody-ness that's perfect for this 12-year-old know-it-all. When Deza begins doubting herself, she tells us that she grinds her teeth together so that she feels what must be horrific pain, I hear that in Turpin's narration. The novel's other emotional moments -- most particularly when Deza's father says goodbye to his family -- are beautifully rendered.

There is an interesting cast of characters that includes gangsters, molls, hobos, librarians (from whom, I'm embarrassed to say, the credit-to-your-race comment comes), policemen, and more. Turpin creates varied and authentic sounding voices for them all. When she voices Deza's "devil," it's with a gangster-type voice that is the aural equivalent of that cartoon with the forked tail. I have a quibble about Turpin's rapid abandonment of the lisp that Deza's father acquires when his front teeth are knocked out during his misadventure on the lake, but I'm willing to entertain the possibility that Curtis simply stopped writing the lisp into Roscoe's dialogue.

Curtis quietly reads both his dedication (where he describes aharuf, an East African word describing something that makes you grin like a jackass [in a good way]) and an author's note that is a little less engaging. Curtis wants Deza Malone to remind us of the 15-million children living in poverty when he wrote the book (that number is another million higher today according to the source he cites, the National Poverty Center). While his heart is in the right place, he sounds a little hectoring and I didn't like that it was the last thing I heard about Deza.

While I was listening to Miss Malone, I was reading a book which took place at the exact same time -- 1936-1937 -- called A Brief History of Montmaray by Michelle Cooper. (I was reading it because the second book in this series caught my eye as a listening candidate, and -- as you know -- I must read in order.) Cooper's book might be called a fantasy, since it takes place in an imagined country, but its setting -- Europe on the brink of World War II -- is as real as Curtis' Hooverville. What first struck me as I absorbed both books was how different their settings were and how the world could be engaged in two such disparate things at the same time. But then I copped to their similarities -- each is a small universe of a close family inside a larger world that is breaking down around them and all too soon we'll see that collapse affect that family. And I was struck again at how much I like historical fiction and its ability to make connections, how much Deza Malone has in common with the Princess of Montmaray, Sophie FitzOsborne. How much I am connected with a child living in poverty today.

OK, Mr. Curtis, I get it. Thanks.

[The photograph is an image of a Hooverville right here in Portland, Oregon. It was taken in 1936 by Arthur Rothstein and is in the Library of Congress' American Memory collection, from where it was retrieved.]

The Mighty Miss Malone by Christopher Paul Curtis
Narrated by Bahni Turpin
Listening Library, 2012. 7:54

No comments: