Thursday, September 18, 2008

All Outdoors on Maple Hill

Miracles on Maple Hill, by Virginia Sorensen, was a beautiful, rather old-fashioned story that I didn't read for a long time because I didn't really like the cover (yes, all too often I do judge books by their covers) or the blurb on the back, which says:
Marly had been waiting a long time for this special moment. She sat alone in the car and stared at the lonely countryside and the small dilapidated house.

It had to be the right place. All outdoors. With miracles. Not crowded and people being cross and mean. Daddy not tired all the time. Mother not worried.....

She whispered, "Please let there be miracles." (pp. 22-23)
Maybe some kids who are religious or who long to move to snowy hillsides covered with bare trees would be compelled to read more, but I wasn't (and I couldn't entice my 11 year old son to read it, either). But I've been missing out on a wonderful story, a story about spring, and the best kind of neighbors, and flowers and gardens and all of the things you that find in the woods in the eastern part of the U.S. (bloodroot! trillium! foxes!), and a rural way of life that is both rather timeless and so very stuck in the 50's.

If you loved The Secret Garden (and I know lots of girls like me did - check out this nostalgic review of that classic), with its theme of a garden coming back to life along with the main character's health and mental and emotional well-being, then I think there's a good chance you'll like the quintessentially American Miracles on Maple Hill, with its miracles of life "pushing-up" and a father recovering from his experiences as a soldier and a prisoner of war. The whole idea of getting back to nature - which certainly isn't a simpler way of life, but definitely has its own rewards - and returning to the family's roots in rural Pennsylvania are deftly explored.

Also, it's not too often my former interests as an archaeologist (and more specifically and obscurely, as a paleoethnobotanist) collide with my current life, so imagine my excitement over Sorensen's description of the history and origins of maple syrup in Miracles on Maple Hill.*

Sorensen (perhaps unwittingly) does an excellent job of describing the strict gender roles of the 1950's, which often vex Marly, the 10 year old narrator, especially when it comes to things that Joe (her 12 year old brother) gets to do that Marly doesn't.
He [Joe] looked determined and she knew how he felt; after what happened before he absolutely had to see Maple Hill first. And she decided to let him. Boys were queer. They seemed afraid they'd stop being boys altogether if they couldn't be first at everything (p. 21).

Once in a while Fritz came by and said Daddy had worked long enough - and then they went fishing. Of course Joe went, too, and Mother and Marly had, as Mother said, "a fine female time." They didn't have to cook perfect pots of things every meal but ate up all the leftovers (pp. 90-91).
In the end, though, Marly gets to help make syrup and touch everyone's heart:
"We've decided the boys can take turns at it," Miss Annie said. "No one boy is going to suffer much loss of school if those runs last a solid month or more."

Marly stood by the telephone, poking Mother with her elbow. "Mother - ask her why the girls can't come. Why, I can carry as many buckets as Joe can!"

"You can't either!" said Joe.

"I can!"

"Ssssh!" Mother said.

There was a little silence on the other end of the phone. Then Miss Annie's voice came again. "I heard that," she said. "I didn't even think about the girls. I don't know why I didn't. Actually..." Another little silence. "I'll talk to them about it. If there are any girls who want to come and work, I don't see why they shouldn't."

"Maybe they won't want to, really," Mother said. "I'm afraid Marly's different. She's rather a tomboy - "

"Mother, I'm not!"

"You are too," said Joe.

"Just wait and see then!" Marly said (pp. 171-172).
The sibling interactions are rather realistic, don't you think? In the story, Marly and Joe clearly love each other, but can't help baiting each other at every chance.

Anyway, I unexpectedly loved Miracles on Maple Hill, and I'm looking forward to sharing it with my daughter (sadly, I don't think I will be able to convince my son to read it). Maybe by the time she can read it, the publisher will have produced a more appealing cover and blurb.

Gathering sap in Vermont in 1940; photograph by Marion Post Wolcott.
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, [reproduction number, e.g., LC-USF35-1326]

*If anyone wants to read more about maple syrup vs. sugar vs. sap production in Native North America, check out A Sweet Small Something: Maple Sugaring in the New World by Carol I. Mason, which GoogleBooks provides as part of the complete text of The Invented Indian: Cultural Fictions and Government Policies, by James A. Clifton.

1 comment:

Sarah said...

Hmmm, too bad about the boychild. My boys are enjoying it. Its perfect for the 8 year old and the 11 yo seems to like it as well. We have an audio book of it and I hate the voices they chose.

I was put off by the cover blurb as well and was not looking forward to this book. In surprised to find it as enjoyable as it is. Im not particularly a nature freak but my 8 yo is and that is where his enjoyment stems from. This book is fun to read by the google toolbar, as we looked up every odd thing we were unfamiliar with (blood root and etc).