In midsummer, in search of a great evening read-aloud, after a string of duds, I pulled Miracles on Maple Hill by Virginia Sorensen off the shelf. Although it was one of my favorite books when I was younger, I wasn’t sure how my two boys and husband would like it. In my hazy memory of it, I kind of passed it off as a “nice” feel-good read. Now that we’ve finished (and loved and re-loved) it, I discovered some layers to the story that add more depth than I’d remembered.
Published in 1956, and winner of the 1957 Newbery Medal, Miracles on Maple Hill begins with Marly and her family traveling to her great-grandmother’s deserted farm. No one except Marly knows that she is in search of a miracle. Mostly, she’s looking for a miracle for her dad, who has recently returned from war (presumably the Korean War) after being missing in action. And, although no one else will say it out loud, they’re all hoping the farm will restore their dad’s mental and physical health.
Over the course of a year (from spring to spring) the family and their neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Chris, experience events that bring healing, teach sacrifice, and encourage growth in most of the characters. Three themes stood out to me during my most recent reading of the book.
Early in the book, Marly and Mr. Chris connect over a love of nature, mice, and Marly’s assertion that, ‘a mouse [is] as important as a buffalo’. Mr. Chris promises to show Marly at least one new miracle every time she visits the farm throughout the spring, and he proceeds to teach her about a wide variety of wildflowers, birds, and animals. As a keen observer of nature, Mr. Chris not only helps her identify different species, but connects their appearance/disappearance to the changing of each season.
There is lots of inspiration for nature journaling and observation in this book! I want to go through and make a list of all the plants and animals included in the plot. One of my favorite nature-related quotes from the book was:
The creatures in the drying ponds sang louder every night; the creatures in the grass and in the fields sang louder every day! Mr. Chris said they knew winter was coming soon, and they had to get all the noise out of their systems.
The discussion of nature and the importance of life (as in whether or not to kill mice) helps Sorensen subtly and gently introduce the larger concept of war and death. Daddy’s experiences as a soldier are an important part of the book’s narrative, and the realities of war and its after-effects on soldiers and their loved ones are introduced without being overwhelming.
A healing moment for Daddy and Joe comes as a result of Joe’s actions in helping a neighbor:
“. . . Some of the people in camp helped each other all the time. Some others never thought about anything or anybody but themselves. I’d never known before how different people can be. And now Joe–” He turned and looked at Joe with the proudest look Marly ever saw in her life, “Well, I know now that Joe would have been one of the good ones. I just know that now.”
Both of my boys are very sensitive to strong emotions and “scary” events in books, but neither of them ever asked me to skip over parts of the book. That being said, be aware that there are descriptions of anger and strong emotions at a few different points in the book; one of the most intense is on pg. 111.
I appreciate how this book presents another side of war to children and shows them that it’s not just bombs and and explosions–it has real and lasting effects on soldiers and their families.
Finally, I love that this book shows some aspects of “real” relationships. There is a nicely balanced sibling relationship between Joe and Marly (squabbling and bickering, but also some nice shared moments between the two). I also appreciate that both parents flawed and also grow through events in the story (Mother’s change of attitude towards Joe’s hermit friend and Daddy’s struggles to recover from war). One of my favorite relationships in the story is the one between Marly and Mr. Chris; it’s a great example of a respectful friendship between a child and an “elderly” person.
If you haven’t read Miracles on Maple Hill, give it a try; and if you have, it’s always worth another read!
Have you read Miracles on Maple Hill?