Monday, June 30, 2008

Miracles on Maple Hill

I wanted to read this book simply because it won the Newbery Award the year I was born. I purchase audiobooks for my university’s collection, and have been trying to obtain (unabridged) versions of Newbery winners we did not already have. I was pleased to see this edition published in November 2007 by Full Cast Audio, a company founded by children’s author Bruce Coville to “create unabridged, full cast recordings of great books for young readers.”

In that regard, this four hour 40 minute audiobook is a resounding success. A talented cast provides appropriate voices for the characters (with the exception of one minor character, Margie, who sounds too young for age 10). Guitar interludes mark new chapters as well as the beginning and end of each disc, and the cast sings the folksong “The Fox” at the end of the production.

Miracles on Maple Hill is a family story set in the early 1950s. The father, Dale, is a former POW (World War II or Korean War is not clear and doesn’t really matter), suffering from what would probably be described as post-traumatic stress disorder today. The family moves from Pittsburg to Maple Hill, to the former home of the grandmother of Lee, the mother. They first arrive in March during maple sugaring season, where Lee, son Joe (12) and daughter Marly (10) spend the weekend while Dale stays during the following weeks to fix up the home. They come back on later weekends and stay the entire summer, and decide to live there full-time in the fall. The book ends with a neighbor’s crisis during the following sugaring season. There is much description of the seasons and simple country life, and Dale’s mood and health improve.

Author Virginia Eggertsen Sorensen stated in her Newbery acceptance speech that she based Maple Hill on Edinboro, Pennsylvania (south of Erie – Sorensen and her then- husband, an English professor, lived in a series of college towns). Some of the characters are based on real people: Mr. Chris and his wife Chrissy were Pennsylvania Dutch Mr. and Mrs. Kreitz (and he actually did have a heart attack while sugaring); the red-haired bookmobile lady was Marian Kelly, the real bookmobile lady from Erie County,; and “Annie-Get-Your-Gun” was what the truant officer/school nurse was really called!

I think this story has a timeless quality to it and is still relevant today. Many American children still grow up in small towns and on farms (my little town, 30 miles outside a rather large city, just completed a new ag barn and has students who are very active in FFA, 4-H, and rodeos). Marly, the main character, doesn’t let her older brother’s (still) typical (today) attitude of “you’re just a girl” stop her from doing and trying things.

I found an interesting article that referenced this book in the Spring 2007 Curriculum Connections edition of School Library Journal. In “No Place Like Home,” India-born Mitali Perkins, who lived in four other countries before moving to California in the seventh grade, wrote:
I'm delighted that so many books exist these days about kids growing up between cultures, but I'm certain that immigrant readers don't want to read only about that experience. When librarians and teachers ask about the best titles for these children, they're sometimes taken aback by my answer: "Stock your shelves with the best contemporary multicultural reads by all means, but kids who no longer live in the land of their roots also need books that create a strong sense of place, and it doesn't really matter where the book is set."

Displaced youngsters want to know what it feels like to have roots. Surprisingly, a few classic books from your parents' childhood might be one way to satisfy this desire. The best writers from the past were masters when it came to creating a sense of place. If you serve immigrant, internationally adopted, or bicultural young people, you may already have noticed their affinity for traditional, old-fashioned tales. One reason is because such fiction provides a historical and cultural understanding of North America, the land they call home now. Another is that the values reflected in these stories might better match the conservative values in their own families.

She notes that such books “combine three techniques to create an enduring literary home for the displaced child. They evoke the use of more than two senses when describing a place, they use details about place to illuminate plot and character, and they create a setting that reflects and echoes the broader theme of the story.”

She gives Miracles on Maple Hill as an example of the second technique:
The family's journey in winter parallels this bleak emotional landscape, and when their car wheels spin uselessly on a snowy hill, we intuit how stuck the family has been feeling. Eventually, the flowing of the sap and the excitement of sugaring brings spring to the land and healing to Marly's family. Sorenson's descriptions of spring, summer, fall, and winter always mirror the gradual changes taking place inside her characters.

Perkins concludes the article with the statement, “The mistaken buzz in the marketplace is that today's techno-stimulated kids no longer have the patience to read long descriptions of setting. But place in literature, when created artfully, still has the power to satisfy some of the heart's hunger for home. Hospitable stories that offer a connection to a place, whether real or imaginary, are the ones young readers will return to again and again-especially if they've been uprooted from their own places of origin.” I think this applies to most kids nowadays, which is why some of the Newbery classics are still appropriate today.

[Also posted on my book blog, Bookin' It.]

1 comment:

Sandy D. said...

Very interesting in regard to that "sense of place"! I do notice this a lot. I know part of the reason I absolutely loved "A Year Down Yonder" by Richard Peck is that it totally nailed the small town where I grew up.

"Up a Road Slowly" was pretty evocative in terms of setting, though I didn't enjoy the story as much.

I think two more YA/teen winners that captured place really well were "Kira-Kira" and "Jacob Have I Loved".