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miss hickory

5 april 2013

The 1947 Newbery Medal winner, Miss Hickory by Carolyn Sherwin Bailey, is one of the weaker Medal books. It's also one of those that has dated the most. Oddly, it's dated despite not being topical. It features human beings only sparingly. Its themes are nature, the cycle of the seasons, and the renewal of old life in new forms; sounds "evergreen" to me. But it's hard to imagine anyone picking up the book today and reacting with anything more than tolerance for its quaintness.

I don't really mean to be hard on the book. Despite somewhat stilted prose even for 1946, it has some original fantasy ideas, and a memorably twisty ending. It's both escapist and consoling, and may have struck the right note for immediate postwar America. And it's no more torpid in plot than many a latter-day Medalist. But reading it was a professional chore for this Newbery completist.

Miss Hickory is a doll – a rustic New England affair of apple twigs, roughly clothed, with a hickory nut for a head. She lives in a doll's house made by a neighbor boy, but her owner has left her behind in a move. (Abandoned habitats, recalling Robert Frost's poem "Directive," are a pervasive theme in the novel.) Miss Hickory charges about her little-people, animal-and-toy fantasy landscape with the surplus energies of a stereotypical spinster. And here's where the datedness of the novel becomes apparent. By creating Miss Hickory in a stylized image of an old maid, nostalgic and tendentious even for the 1940s, Bailey ensures that she will be almost unintelligible to children of a few decades later.

For example, there's a character in the book called "Cock" (and wouldn't that go over nicely with 2010s children's editors?) He is an overbearing, semi-abusive pheasant husband to Hen. Like the hens in Elizabeth Bishop's poem "Roosters" who lead "lives of being courted and despised," the hen-pheasants are alternately ignored and pecked at by their spouses. So Miss Hickory organizes the hen-pheasant community into a Ladies' Aid Society, teaching them sewing and self-entertainment. This gets the girls through the winter, and then we observe the big payoff for their patience:

"Cock-Pheasant and the other men have come to collect their wives," Crow explained. "They want help in making new-nests in the brush pile over in the woods; and you'll see, every one of the girls will forgive and forget now that mating time has come."

Sure enough, Crow was right. As each brilliant cock-pheasant left the entrance to the Ladies' Aid Society, at a spaced distance behind him walked a small drab hen, silent as was befitting, but her heart bursting with happiness. (81-82)
It's possible that Bailey's ethology is correct here; for all I know, pheasants are a patriarchal lot, and pheasant feminism may be a contradiction in terms. Much of Miss Hickory is taken up with observing the ways of animals in anthropomorphized, but at the same time species-centered, ways. (So Squirrel, a major character, can talk, but all he ever talks about is finding, hiding, forgetting, and eating nuts.) But the eternal question presents itself: even if you're telling it like it is, why are you telling it at all? The subservient return of the hen-pheasants at their husbands' heels is a moment of great triumph for the natural order of things in Miss Hickory, lovingly detailed. And there's no indication that humans, too, wouldn't be happiest with such arrangements.

The twist ending is hard to forget, and I'll spoil it here because you don't really want to read all the way through Miss Hickory to get there anyway. Squirrel gets so hungry toward the end of winter that he can't resist eating Miss Hickory's head, whereupon her thoughts dissolve as she is digested, in a scene worthier of Anna Karenina dying on the tracks, or perhaps Hermann Broch's Death of Virgil, than a light-hearted children's fantasy. Miss Hickory's decapitated twig-body then staggers around for a while, eventually climbing an apple tree – and grafting itself onto an upper branch, where, its consciousness now diffused, it blooms with apple blossoms the next spring. The extinction of Miss Hickory has a Charlotte's-Web quality to it, a death-and-rebirth theme that speaks to the sublime. But much of what precedes this ending is somewhat ridiculous.

Bailey, Carolyn Sherwin. Miss Hickory. Lithographs by Ruth Chrisman Gannett. 1946. New York: Viking [Penguin], n.d.