Monday, May 10, 2010

I'll Remember

When we find historical sites, a work of art, or a piece of literature, we understand our responsibility to do all we can to preserve these artifacts. They provide insight into the past that can be touched and measured, and become priceless. However, when an intangible part of the past, like a way of life or family heirloom, is at risk, it is much more difficult to recognize the necessity of saving it for the future. M.C. Higgins, the Great by Virginia Hamilton, winner of the 1975 Newbery Medal, and The Hundred Penny Box by Sharon Bell Mathis, a 1976 Honor book, explore the importance of protecting unique parts of the past.

M.C. Higgins lives with his family in the remote area in the hills of West Virginia, on what they call "Sarah's Mountain". According to their family tradition, M.C.'s great-grandmother, Sarah, escaped slavery to settle in the wilds of Virgina and his family has lived there ever since. Their way of life is threatened, however, by the huge pile of rubble from strip mining that rests precariously above their home. The wild world around the Higgin's family has been tainted by developers who have drained the natural resources, without a thought about the environmental impact. M.C. believes that it is inevitable that his family's home and way of life will be crushed by the mountain. It takes a visit by two strangers, particularly an attractive teenage girl, to shift M.C. from his defeatist notions. From Lurhetta Outlaw he learns to contradict his assumptions about what is possible, and he decides that he will fight to protect his family's home. His way of life is secured when he decides that it is worth saving.

The Hundred Penny Box is a book that says something big in a small way. Michael's Great-great-great-aunt Dew lives with him and his parents, and he shares a special connection with her. Aunt Dew often confuses Michael with his father, John, who Aunt Dew raised, but Michael doesn't mind. Aunt Dew owns a treasured possession, the hundred penny box, which contains a penny for each year of her life. This causes conflict with Michael's mother, who can't understand why a worn-out box of pennies is so important to Aunt Dew. Aunt Dew tells Michael that "when I lose my hundred penny box, I lose myself" (19). Embedded in each coin is a year of memories. Her memories are illustrated in abstract penny-colored paintings that vividly show the connection between pennies and memories. All Aunt Dew has to do is pick up the penny and she can see Reconstruction, birthing her twin boys, sewing dresses during the Great Depression, and John falling out from trees in Atlanta. The box itself has significance, as a gift from her late husband, Henry. The hundred penny box is not a thing to Aunt Dew; it is a part of her. She has had a rich and fulfilling life, and while she no longer has a home of her own, the hundred penny box is a testament to all that she experienced and endured. In this context, preserving the hundred penny box is of tantamount importance. Not only does the hundred penny box remind Aunt Dew of her life, it provides a beautiful opportunity for her to share the story of her life with her great-great-great nephew, who will continue to share her pennies long after she's gone.

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