Virginia Hamilton wrote the first chapter of M. C. Higgins, the Great (1974) eleven times. Such meticulous revision reaped phenomenal awards, for this young adult novel was the first by an African American to win the Newbery Medal, and it also garnered the Boston-Hornbook Magazine Award, the National Book Award, the Lewis Carrol Shelf Award, and the International Board on Books for Young People Award.
M. C. Higgins, the Great centers on fifteen-year-old Mayo Cornelius (M. C.), who lives on Sarah's Mountain in southern Ohio. Steeped in stress because a spoil heap left from strip-mining threatens to crash down on his home, he spends most of his time sitting on a bicycle seat atop a 40-foot flag pole. The arrival of a folk song collector kindles his hope that the recording of his mother's singing will make her famous and enable the family to leave Sarah's Mountain. During the story M. C. has his first feelings of love, his first yearning for independence, his first questions about his belief and value system, and his first questions of his father's adamant desire to stay no matter what. In the end, M. C. and the neighborhood outcasts come together to build a wall around the heap, leaving the reader not knowing whether his first love would return, not knowing whether the recording artist would reconsider using his mother's voice, and ultimately not knowing whether the spoil heap of bulldozed trees and subsoil will indeed kill the whole family.
Praised by children's and young adult literature critics Rudine Sims, Zena Sutherland, Betsy Hearne, Sheila Egoff, Virginia Haviland, and Violet Harris, Virginia Hamilton is renowned for her skillful use of nontraditional settings, poetic imagery, unique characterization, impactful dialogue, plot structures, and themes for African American children and young adults. She is also commended for being among the first in African American children's literature to insightfully use African American folklore.
Perhaps the most provocative critical article on M. C. was written by Perry Nodelman, who explains the demanding structure of the novel and notes its binary oppositions, but fails to resolve or interpret them. On a higher level, since little is definitively resolved in Hamilton's works, the novel could reflect the indeterminacy of meaning in modern novels.
Critics praise the book for the linking of the ancestral past with the present and for being an African American young adult novel that has universal appeal, but few have discussed its pioneering ecological theme. No critic has psychoanalyzed M. C.'s character and interior dialogue even though the girl Louretta ironically represents his anima (yin side) and the recording artist and Jones, M. C.'s father, represents his animus side (yang). Few critics have yet tackled the psychological symbolism of the pole even though one critic simplistically reduced it to a phallic symbol. Critics have commended Hamilton for being so intriguingly unconventional, yet she is quite conventional in her use of mythology. No critic has ventured to give M. C. a Marxist interpretation even though the novel clearly hints at the negative effects of capitalism in the mountain exploitation.