My first book of 2015 was, as promised, Miracles on Maple Hill by Virginia Sorensen, which is a book that makes my mother put her hands over her heart and exclaim, “Oh, I love that book!” My mother’s taste is exquisite. She never got me to read Maple Hill as a kid, though, I think because the title has a superficial similarity to Incident at Hawk’s Hill by Allan W. Eckert. Hawk’s Hill was a semi-fictional account of a little boy being lost and taken in by a wild badger mother. Parts of it had a lasting effect of horror and alarm upon my baby-psyche, and trying to introduce me to a book that might have anything in common with it was an error for a number of years. Eventually I decided Maple Hill was probably boring, too, I think because the paperback in our house had a particularly stiff binding and I, at nine or so, liked paperbacks to crunch. What good reasons to have for not reading something!
As it turns out, Miracles on Maple Hill is NOT a boring book. It’s a setting book more than anything else–a family moves to a run-down family house in rural Pennsylvania, in part to fix it up, but mostly as a source of rehab for the father, who’s come back from war (and, elliptically, prison camp) with incredibly understandable psychological damage. Marly and her brother aren’t sure about the move to the wilderness, being city kids, but they both take to it like naturals. Sorensen’s descriptions of the seasons and the processes of farming, syrup-making, and living in a small northern place all pop to life. If you have ever been anywhere that looks or smells like what she’s writing about, you’ll be catching a whiff of them from beginning to end. I was a semi-country kid myself, but I spent enough time visiting southern Vermont as a kid that Marly’s excitement and insight and the small details of her adventures struck home in a big way.
So it’s a good book. It’s a good thing Mum didn’t read it to me in my suspicious phase because periodically the family does things like throw nests of baby mice into the woodstove (Marly’s outrage and distress over this convinced me early on that we are kindred spirits and she should be my best childhood friend in the past). But it has all the compelling Healing Nature traits of The Enchanted April, which is both a delicious book and one of my life-long heart-healing go-to movies. It builds a sense of homeliness and community like Anne of Green Gables (another book with a fantastic movie counterpart, actually–when the place is one of the characters, it doesn’t always hurt to see it.) Maple Hill also deals with a child’s perception of a war-wounded or illness-stricken parent in a particularly effective way. More recent books like The Meaning of Maggie by Megan Jean Sovern and Absolutely Truly by Heather Vogel Frederick address similar issues (including in Frederick’s case the moving of a family to a small town to sort out the veteran dad and take over a family property). But the balance and the texture both felt stronger to me in Maple Hill.
The idea of going to the country to rejuvenate yourself is quite an old one, and maybe it ignores some of the profound difficulties of the “simple life.” This book doesn’t really ignore those parts, though, any more than Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books did (although if anyone can ever get their hands on the new autobiography, I have heard that it holds back even less than the fictionalized versions…). But I know that when I feel really, truly, terribly wrung out, where I go is a place something like their Maple Hill–and it’s true about the miracles. It gives you room to breathe again.