Personification stories have always leant themselves to metaphor. In personification stories for children, the dominating metaphor is usually related to growing up—whether it's a talking pig that helps Fern grow up inCharlotte's Web, or an animated puppet himself growing up inPinocchio. Kids can relate both to the imaginative fantasy element, and experientially to the realism.
Carolyn Sherwin Bailey'sMiss Hickoryfollows this familiar pattern. Less a full-length novel and more a series of episodic portraits of the "life" of a little stick doll with a hickory nut for a head, the book sees Miss Hickory not doing much, repeatedly kicked out of her living spaces, and finding ultimate fulfillment in a transcendant experience that will leave many readers scratching their heads.
To put it less cryptically (and there's a major spoiler coming): Miss Hickory is the plaything of Ann, a young girl shipped off to Boston for school. Because the whole family accompanies Ann to Boston, Miss Hickory no longer has anyone to take care of her, and at the suggestion of Crow goes to live in a nest.
In the nest, various animals try to get Miss Hickory to have adventures, but she always resists, often rudely. Squirrel, living in the trunk of the tree from which her nest hangs, makes frequent remarks and jokes about her hickory nut head which make the doll constantly nervous. Eventually, Robin kicks Miss Hickory out of her nest, and now comes the spoiler.
After being thrown from her nest, Miss Hickory inexplicably seeks shelter from Squirrel. But Squirrel, fed up with his neighbor's antics and underfed after a harsh winter, instead of helping Miss Hickory bites her head off and eats it. Then she runs around headless for awhile, sheds her clothes, and sticks her head into an apple branch, becoming grafted to the tree.
When Ann and her friend Timothy show up in the orchard where the Miss Hickory apple tree stands, Ann is sad that her doll is missing and wants to find her. Timothy shows her the graft, Ann recognizes Miss Hickory's body, and there's a mystical moment when Miss Hickory vows to grow a big apple for Ann as a reward for recognizing her. And then the book is over.
The final moments of the book are clearly meant to indicate Ann's move from childhood to growing up-hood. But it's a strange way to end a book about talking animals and a living doll who gets decapitated and becomes part of a tree, giving it new life by joining herself bodily to the branches. We only see Ann at all in the final pages, and have no idea what kind of child she was, or what kind of adult she might be on her way to becoming.
There's another odd metaphysical moment in the book. All the animals of the farm and surrounding countryside, as well as animals from other lands and times, make a procession to the barn on Christmas Eve to see a magical appearing in a manger. Is it Jesus they see? We never find out, but all the animals congregate to see this thing, and then go their own ways.
Miss Hickoryisn't poorly written, but it isn't nearly as whimsical as a children's book should be. There's nothing offensive, but then there's really not much of anything here, just a series of vaguely related incidents and characters we never know well enough to care about. It's oddly mystical, and oddly absent of any explanation for the mysticism.
We're introduced to a number of animals we feel we should like, but none of them are fleshed out, and all of them are just stock caricatures. Mr. T. Willard-Brown, for instance, is a barn cat with more pride than he deserves, and a knack for catching mice. That's about as creative as Bailey ever gets.
There's no reason to avoid this one (no immoral content, no subversive propaganda), but there's no reason to read it. Most kids won't care much about Miss Hickory (who's chronically rude and thoughtless), or about the oddly contrived yet non-sequitur ending. WhyMiss Hickorywon the Newbery Medal in 1947 is as mysterious as the strange plot that brought her to life.
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