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Virginia Hamilton's 'liberation literature' continues to open doors for young readers

The Library of America

She's the most award-winning YA author in American literary history, with dozens of works of fiction and non-fiction to her credit. Among other prizes, she won a National Book Award and was the first children's writer to win a MacArthur "Genius Grant"; she was also the first African American author to win a Newbery Medal.

If this were a Jeopardy clue, until a few weeks ago I wouldn't have known that the correct answer is: "Who is Virginia Hamilton?"

When Hamilton's first novel came out in 1967, I was a tad older than her target audience; but, more to the point, I don't remember being given any works of fiction back then that weren't written by white people. Hamilton helped break open the YA genre, making it more inclusive. She called her books, "liberation literature," because they centered on African American characters and history, but like all great imaginative writing, Hamilton's novels also liberated her readers into a wider world.

Last fall, the Library of America brought out a one-volume edition of five of Hamilton's most celebrated YA novels; their tone is like nothing else I've read. Hamilton's stories are suffused with off-kilter weirdness, humor and a sense of menace that her young characters intuit, but the adults around them have become numb to. That danger often has its roots in racism.

Take Hamilton's 1968 novel, The House of Dies Drear, which won the Edgar Award for best juvenile mystery. The main character is a young boy named Thomas Small, who's moving to Ohio because his father, a history professor, has gotten a position at the local college.

Thomas is what I now think of as a typical Hamilton protagonist: He's optimistic, autonomous and too curious for his own good. The huge old house the family is moving into — once owned by a man named Dies Drear — was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Thomas's father tells him the original blueprints have been lost, so no one knows how many tunnels or hidden rooms riddle the house.

In a Nancy Drew mystery, this would be a set-up for a romp through hidden passages strewn with gems. Here, the haunted tunnels hold the subterranean history America would rather forget. And, not all the ghouls are supernatural. A few nights after moving in, the family returns from an outing and is greeted by this sight:

[A] large sack of flour ... had been emptied over the entire kitchen floor. It had been spread evenly in a layer, and over the layer had been poured water and apple juice. The whole mess had been mixed into a sticky, brown paste, which was spread over the kitchen table, over the stove and sink counters, over all the chairs and parts of the walls. The door of the frigidaire hung open, and all the food there had been removed. Whatever could be squeezed had been squeezed onto the floor. ... The whole room, the windows, everything, glistened with this unspeakable icing.

Throughout The House of Dies Drear, Hamilton toggles back and forth between the threat of the supernatural and the evil work of all-too-human-hands. In Hamilton's 1974 novel, M.C. Higgins, the Great, which won the National Book Award, the dangers to young Mayo Cornelius ("M.C.") Higgins and his family loom above their heads.

M.C., his parents and younger siblings live in "deep country" on a mountain near the Ohio River, a mountain named after M.C.'s great-great-grandmother who escaped from slavery. A mining company has set up near the summit of the mountain, digging out "tons of soil" to get to a coal seam. There's "an enormous black boil of uprooted trees and earth plastered together by rain ... hanging suspended on the mountainside" and M.C. is the only person who takes seriously the danger of that heap of debris sliding slowly down the mountain towards his family's little house.

M.C. Higgins, the Great is such an evocative novel about how the places poor people live are the places ripe for plundering. But I'm making Hamilton sound heavy-handed when her novels never are. Hamilton's biographer, Julie K. Rubini, tells a story about Hamilton sitting in her editor's office, describing being haunted by an image of a boy with lettuce leaves wrapped around his wrists. That boy would become M.C., who loads rabbit traps with lettuce when his struggling family needs food. Hamilton's editor reportedly told her, "You just need to follow this boy and the story will reveal itself." That's how Hamilton's novels read: fluid, inevitable and full of purpose.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.