Plot: Jeffrey Magee is a an orphaned boy who blows into the town of Two Mills, Pennsylvania (a fictional place) one afternoon. Within the first day he has already made an impression on the neighborhood. He butts into an ongoing little league game and hits line drives off of ace pitcher John McNab. He strays into Finsterwald’s backyard, a place that no other kid will venture due to the local grinch that lives there. And the Pickwell kids claim that they saw him running on top of the steel rails of the railroad tracks. With all of these crazy stories floating about, people begin calling him Maniac Magee.
But Jeffrey soon hits upon the split reality of Two Mills: the town is divided strictly along racial lines of white and black. Maniac is oblivious to it all. Although being white himself, he openly wanders into the black part of town and remains oblivious to his blunder. He stays with the Beale family on Sycamore street until they begin receiving threats because they are housing a “honky fishbelly.” Maniac knows then that it is time to move on.
He takes up residence in the bison pen at a local zoo, until he makes friends with the local groundskeeper, an elderly man named Grayson. During his weeks with Grayson, Jeffrey listens to his tales about playing minor league ball and he also teaches the old man how to read. When Grayson passes away, Jeffrey again hits the road and eventually ends up back in Two Mills. This time Maniac will examine even more closely the racial strife in the town and take action to ameliorate it.
Personal Reaction: A couple of years ago I tried to listen to the audiobook version of Love Stargirl by Spinelli. I say “tried” because a couple of chapters into it, I found it to be so annoying that I turned it off. It may not have been the writing. It may have been the subject matter or the grating voice of the narrator.
As I listened to the audiobook of Maniac Magee, I thought that I was going to have a similar reaction to this book. I enjoyed the opening when Jeffrey rolls into Two Mills like
a supernatural event, performing heroic acts and getting everyone talking. Midway through, however, during the scenes with Grayson, I felt that Spinelli had lost the momentum of the narrative. I found the interaction between Maniac and the elderly groundskeeper to be cloying, especially when he was teaching him to read. Where was the hook, I wondered, to keep the reader, well, reading?
The book picks up again when Maniac returns to Two Mills and encounters the racial conflict. At this point, older readers will realize that the character of Jeffrey is really not much of a character at all. He is the personification of racial tolerance and color blindness. He is the unearthly hero who can perform great miracles and open people’s hearts. I appreciated Spinelli asking readers to make this leap to study the symbolism surrounding the character of Maniac. For this reason, I can understand why this book is taught in many middle school classrooms and also won the 1991 Newberry Honor Medal.
Themes: racial conflict, heroism/heroic acts, orphan, individual vs. society, community healing.