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miracles on maple hill

11 august 2015

Warning: Miracles on Maple Hill, the 1957 Newbery Medal book, is so heartwarming you might have to rush to the ER with cardiac hyperthermia.

Virginia Sorensen's novel is solidly within a tradition that almost constitutes its own genre in prestige children's fiction: the summer (or seasons, or years) of wonders story. Earlier examples include Elizabeth Enright's Thimble Summer and Nancy Barnes' Wonderful Year. In each of these books, a child experiences the beautiful magic of the American countryside. In Miracles on Maple Hill, just as in The Wonderful Year, the proximate cause of the experience is a father's depression. Cooped up in our noisy, alienating cities, full of shoddy goods and chiseling people, mid-20th-century Dads tended to go off their feed and need some pastoral downtime. Fortunately there always seems to be an ancestral estate within easy driving distance.

Daddy in Miracles on Maple Hill, however, has a more topical problem: PTSD. He is back from The War – in modern America, there's always just been a War, you don't even have to specify which – and he's been a prisoner and a hero and he's come home at last, pensioned off and jittery from the experience. And he's not the only sufferer. When Daddy and family decamp to Mother's primeval family home in the woods, one of their neighbors turns out to be a hermit named Harry, who also retured from a War and found himself unable to live in a city. Harry has made a home in the hills with the goats, and forms part of the joyful, self-sufficient, healing community that our family joins.

The focal character is Marly, ten years old, independent, sometimes at odds with her twelve-year-old brother Joe and sometimes rapturously enamored of him. Marly loves animals and plants and an old maple-sugar farmer named Mr. Chris, round as Santa Claus and twice as jolly, has promised her a year full of miracles. Maple syrup is so integral to those miracles that the book almost literally drowns you in treacle as Marly finds a new species or treat on a daily basis.

As you might suspect, Miracles on Maple Hill is plotless and gentle. I don't want to be too harsh on it. It can surprise readers sixty years later. The book is empty of "greatest generation" rhetoric. War is a bad thing, full of trauma even for the surviving heroes. Hence military rhetoric is largely suppressed here, in favor of the healing power of nature. That's a good thing. And there are some practical lessons on syrup-making.

Sorensen, Virginia. Miracles on Maple Hill. Edited by Beth and Joe Krush. 1956. New York: Scholastic, 1989.