How much can happen to one boy in the space of a few years of his life? A lot, if you are the stuff that legends are made of. The legend is Jeffrey Lionel Magee, also known as Maniac Magee, in the book by the same name, by Jerry Spinelli.
He was born in an ordinary house, to ordinary parents. But when a trolley crashed into the river, killing them, Jeffrey’s life began to change. He was sent to live with his Uncle Dan and Aunt Dot, who lived together but shared nothing and never spoke to each other.
After eight years of this, one day Jeffrey started screaming during a school play. Then he left the auditorium, running, and he never stopped.
Thus began his life as a homeless child. He found himself in the black section of town, with a girl who hauled her entire library in a suitcase, back and forth to school. After he pleaded with her, Amanda finally lent him one book to read.
After that, the stories about him began. He was the only boy…ever…ever!…to not be afraid to enter Finsterwald’s back yard. If you lost your baseball or model airplane because it flew over the fence into his back yard, you didn’t dare go in there to retrieve it. Nobody would deliver papers there. Nobody would shovel that sidewalk, not even for a zillion dollars.
But Jeffrey Magee wasn’t afraid. He rescued Arnold when some high school kids were trying to throw him, screaming, over the fence into Finsterwald’s back yard. These things, plus his athletic feats, are what started people calling him “Maniac,” and the name stuck.
But he didn’t have a home. He jumped the fence at night to sleep with buffalos at the zoo. He snuck into Mrs. Pickwell’s house for dinner every now and then, and nobody thought anything was wrong, because they had so many kids to begin with, and usually a couple of friends over as well, that everyone figured he was just somebody else’s friend.
More than anything, though, this is a story of Maniac and the friends he makes, the fights he fights, and the challenges he faces. So much happens to him, there’s more stuff in here than an encyclopedia.
The chapters are short, and the way the people and events in his life weave together as the book goes on is interesting. Through it all, Maniac keeps running, running, running, looking for a place and people to go home to.
This has been a popular book with kids since it was published in 1990. Part of it is just that there is so much going on, and part of it is that Maniac and the things he does are so unusual. Kids can relate to his not feeling like he belongs anywhere, yet he keeps trying.
It’s a hard book to categorize. It’s not really about sports, although there is some baseball and running in it. It touches on racism, but that’s not the biggest part of the story, either. You’ll have to read Maniac Magee, by Jerry Spinelli, yourself, to see what you think.