One of the first things you'll notice about Miracles on Maple Hill is that it's surprisingly realistic for a children's novel published in 1956. In Chapter 1 we read about Marly's family on their way to her great-grandma's farm in rural Pennsylvania—the farm is long abandoned and out-of-use, but Marly's Daddy came home from the war (presumably World War II or Korea) with post-traumatic stress disorder, and the hope is that he'll recover in the country with something to do.
Not many books for kids deal with PTSD, and not many from the 1950s especially. In the opening scenes of the book, Daddy is mad a lot, with a short temper and obviously bad memories from his time as a prisoner of war. He's not thrilled about coming to the country, but then he's not thrilled about much of anything, sitting with folded arms in the front seat while Mother drives the car (which only happens when Daddy is extra tired and out of sorts).
But after our introduction to 10-year-old Marly, 12-year-old Joe, Mother, and Daddy, the realism seems to fade to the background, and in its place we get what we'd expect from a 1956 story about a little girl. Formerly of Pittsburgh, Marly runs free in the woods, makes friends with Mr. Chris and his wife Chrissie who adopt Marly and her family, tags along on adventures with Joe, finds flowers and sees foxes, helps make maple syrup during the sugaring off time, meets a hermit, and much more.
In many ways, this is simply about two kids experiencing and falling in love with nature. Virginia Sorensen is adept at describing the Pennsylvania woods in each season, and captures the essence of childlike curiosity and wonder. She also shows their open hearts, as both Joe and Marly befriend their new neighbors with no judgment, while their parents have to overcome their own prejudices to accept those different from them.
There are two kinds of Miracles on Maple Hill. The most obvious miracles are the little treasures of nature—the blooming flowers, the wildlife, the sugar maples, etc. More important are the people miracles—the way Joe befriends Harry the Hermit and eventually shows Mother how to do the same, the friendship between Daddy and Mr. Chris, and most importantly, the healing Daddy experiences as a farmer in the Pennsylvania woods, far from the city and its constant fighting and struggle.
You'd think that Sorensen would focus on the latter (Daddy's healing), but she doesn't. It seems that his healing is effected by the second or third chapter, and for the rest of the novel his PTSD is only a memory and the family experiences an idyllic year in the woods, happy and content. There's no real path toward healing, just an abrupt turn from dour to happy. This greatly lessens the potential emotional impact of the novel, and renders the climax pretty anti-climactic.
Marly and Joe are likable, but not exactly realistic kids. Sure, Joe doesn't want his sister tagging along all the time, and Marly doesn't always keep her mouth shut when she should, but they never really do anything wrong. Not that we promote naughty behavior, but kids that never disobey are hard to relate to because they're so far from the real thing. Sorensen understands their childlike wonder, but she paints Joe and Marly a little too wholesome and perfect for them to be realistic.
That's not to say this book isn't worth reading. The passages about nature, and the fascinating descriptions of syrup making, woodworking, and other rural tasks provide a glimpse at an America rapidly fading from memory. We see people at work and play in ways we aren't likely to see today, and that is invaluable for younger readers. If you're hoping for the deep and moving character studies the Newbery medalists often offer, however, you'll have to look elsewhere.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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