Miss Hickory

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NEWBERY MEDAL WINNER – 1947

Miss Hickory

by Carolyn Sherwin Bailey

illustrated by Ruth Gannett

Age: 8+

Interests: toys, dolls, nature, animals, birds, seasons, Christmas, religion

Viking Press: 1946

128 pages

Also by this author: A Christmas Party, The Little Rabbit Who Wanted Red Wings, Stories for Every Holiday, Finnegan II: His Nine Lives

Other books on the ‘sentient toy’ theme: The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, Hitty: Her First Hundred Years, Adventures of the Little Wooden Horse, The Mouse and his Child

A hard-headed doll lives on her own in a little house in the woods near a human home, the one she originally came from. When she learns that the family is moving away for the winter, and a chipmunk takes over her home, she must fend for herself and find a new home. With some aid and advice from a Crow and a cat named Mr. T. Willard-Brown, Miss Hickory does quite well, though her suspicious, unfriendly nature proves slow to thaw. After a magical Christmas event, however, she begins to rue her obstinate ways. Finally in the end a hungry squirrel eats her hickory nut head but Miss Hickory carries on to a surprising new life.

This book is pretty amazingly weird, I’ve got to say that. First of all our protagonist, while a doll (applewood body and hickory nut head), is an older, cranky, stubborn lady, not a child at all. She’s generally unpleasant to everyone, though her suspicions are often founded, since this is a realistically dog-eat-dog version of nature. She goes through an interesting softening of her character, as she finds herself helping other creatures and actually enjoying herself. She starts to appreciate the finer points of the beauty of the seasons, and even begins to have a little fun… when she suffers an unusual fate.

One of my biggest pet peeves would be adults who review children’s books, particularly very old children’s books, only for the joy of being really snarky about them. You’ve got to cut the authors some slack and take into consideration the time at which the books were written. It’s interesting to me that both this book and the Newbery winner from the year previous (Strawberry Girl) have a surprisingly harsh, violent edge to them. This just makes me ponder the realities of the late 1940s, just after the end of WWII and with the privation of the 1930s still in recent memory.

Even the most bizarre and potentially inappropriate of old books can hold interest for some. This book for example, has moments of real poetry, as well as pretty bizarre moments (ie. the ending). The scene in which all the farm animals mysteriously file into the barn on Christmas Eve to witness something miraculous feels strange and a little out of place – similar to “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” in The Wind in the Willows, though not quite as masterfully written – and readers could find it either transcendent or just plain goofy. The moments when Miss Hickory lets loose and tries new things, like ice-skating or going for a ride on Crow’s back, are really lovely and evocative. And the details of her life, especially the clothing she fashions from leaves and moss, are charming.

Then there’s the ending… When the lazy, thoughtless Squirrel finally gives in to his baser instincts and pulls her head off to eat it, Miss Hickory goes on living without it. She is actually described as “headless, heedless, happy”, and realizes that her head was only holding her back. In a final moment I certainly didn’t see coming, she hauls her headless body up an apple tree and actually grafts herself on – remember, her body was made of applewood – growing into a new branch with a new life, etc. Phew. It’s possible though, that children will accept the whole thing without qualms. The New York Times claimed it “adds a final touch of poetry to an unusual fantasy.” I myself did not read this when I was young, so I looked through a few reviews and found both adults who adored the book as a child and others who were horrified and traumatized by the ending. The best advice I can give would be to consider your own young reader and how they will react. (For the more sensitive souls you might do better to read Rabbit Hill, a wonderful book about wild animals also written in the 1940s, but which has aged better and ends in a more traditionally happy way.)

A summing up… don’t be lulled into thinking this is a book without bite, simply because it’s about a doll. There’s some harsh reality at work here, and disturbing moments, hence the 8 and up age recommendation. The descriptions of nature and the changing seasons however, are not without charm. For those who want to push the children’s literature envelope!

(this title available at amazon.com)

Miss-Hickory OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA 6a00e54eeecc2f88340192aab09e96970d-pi 502a8899873c1a7dc6dde464c9cc7790

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Susan
    Jul 13, 2015 @ 10:04:48

    One of my favorite books as a child! Thanks for your review,

    Susan

    Reply

  2. Carla
    Feb 20, 2017 @ 13:09:32

    I was a reluctant reader, but this book helped me enjoy reading.

    Reply

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All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.