She is the most awarded YA author in American literary history, with dozens of works of fiction and nonfiction to her credit. Among other awards, 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 was a Jeopardy clue, until a few weeks ago I wouldn’t have known the correct answer was, “Who is Virginia Hamilton?”
When Hamilton’s first novel came out in 1967, I was a bit older than its intended audience; but, more specifically, I don’t remember having received works of fiction at the time that were not written by white people. Hamilton helped open up the YA genre, making it more inclusive. She called her books “liberating 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 more vast.
Last fall, the Library of America released a one-volume edition of five of Hamilton’s most famous children’s novels; their tone is unlike anything else I have read. Hamilton’s stories are steeped in weirdness, humor and a quirky sense of menace that his young characters perceive, but the adults around them have grown desensitized to. This danger often has its roots in racism.
Take Hamilton’s 1968 novel, Dies Drear’s House, which won the Edgar Award for Best Juvenile Mystery Novel. The main character is a young boy named Thomas Small, who moves to Ohio because his father, a history teacher, got a job at the local college.
Thomas is what I now consider a typical Hamilton protagonist: he’s optimistic, self-contained, and too curious for his own good. The huge old house the family moves into – once owned by a man named Dies Drear – was an Underground Railroad stop. Thomas’ father tells him that the original plans have been lost, so no one knows how many tunnels or hidden rooms run through the house.
In a Nancy Drew mystery, this would be a set-up for an adventure through hidden passageways strewn with gems. Here, the haunted tunnels hold the subterranean history that America would rather forget. And not all ghouls are supernatural. A few nights after moving in, the family returns from an outing and is greeted by this sight:
[A] big sack of flour… had been emptied all over the 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 smeared on the kitchen table, on the stove and sink counters, on all the chairs, and on parts of the walls. The refrigerator door had been left open and all the food had been removed. Everything that could be pressed had been pressed to the ground. … The whole room, the windows, everything shone with that unspeakable glaze.
All along Dies Drear’s House, Hamilton oscillates between the threat of the supernatural and the evil work of too human hands. In Hamilton’s 1974 novel, MC Higgins, the Greatwhich won the National Book Award, the dangers for young Mayo Cornelius (“MC”) Higgins and his family loom over their heads.
MC, his parents and younger siblings live in “deep country” on a mountain near the Ohio River, a mountain named after MC’s great-great-grandmother who escaped from the ‘slavery. A mining company has set up near the top of the mountain, digging “tons of earth” to reach a seam of coal. There is “a huge black boil of uprooted trees and rain-plastered earth…suspended suspended from the mountainside” and MC is the only person who takes seriously the danger of this pile of debris slowly sliding down from the mountain to his family’s little house.
MC Higgins, the Great is such an evocative novel about how places where the poor live are places ripe for plunder. But I make Hamilton seem authoritative when his novels never are. Hamilton biographer Julie K. Rubini tells the story of Hamilton sitting in her publisher’s office, describing being haunted by the image of a boy with lettuce leaves wrapped around his wrists. This boy would become an MC, who loads rabbit traps with lettuce when his struggling family needs food. The Hamilton editor reportedly told him, “Just follow this boy and the story will tell itself.” This is how Hamilton’s novels read: fluid, inevitable and full of meaning.