Carolyn Sherwin Bailey (1947)
Read to: up to 4th grade
Read independently: 3rd - 5th grade
Another very nice book - a cross between Hitty and Rabbit Hill. Miss Hickory is a little doll that has been fashioned out of sticks and nuts and lives in a corn cob house. It seems like she might originally have been someone's nick-knack sort of decoration but it's never really explained how she can move around and care for herself - but then I guess neither were Hitty or the Rabbit Hill animals - it's just a given in the wonderful world of children's literature. This book is not so much a continuous story as it is a series of episodes much like watching a sitcom where the characters are connected from show to show but you don't necessarily see each day of their life. It may not be as funny as a sitcom - but I guess it depends on what sitcom you watch. I don't find them all hilarious but most are enjoyable - as is this book.
Miss Hickory is full of spunk and gut. I envisioned her like the character "Flo" from the '70's sitcom Alice. She even becomes a little threatening when she herself feels threatened. It occurred on page 21 which was early enough in the book to give me concern as to whether this doll's attitude was going to be a bad example throughout the book. Thankfully, it wasn't. The situation was that the family that lived in the house had gone away. I think most people who go away for an extended period of time would not take a twig doll and corn cob house - but Miss Hickory seems to think it should've happened. It was unclear to me why she thought so. It was also unclear why an independent doll like Miss Hickory worried about it. But she was so panicked that she lashed out at the cat who broke the news to her. First she tells him he's the reason they left because he's such a cat, always asking for milk. Then she threatens to expose his real name. Worse is that she never feels remorse or even apologizes to the cat. Regardless of the lack of resolution, the story moves on with no more significant outbursts.
On page 36 when describing the materials available for Miss Hickory's sewing we read, "The soft lining of the fern fronds made Miss Hickory's winter underwear." None of her other garments were specifically mentioned making the underwear reference stand out in extremely poor taste. Even so, it did not elicit any response from my 6y10m son.
Miss Hickory interacts with a variety of animals. Sometimes we see them through Miss Hickory's eyes and sometimes through themselves or someone else. The cat describes a cow taking medicine on page 52, "If Cow had been able to swallow in a civilized way like the horses and the sheep, her medicine would have gone down easily. But since Cow ordinarily lived on cuds, chewing them for long periods of time, and had a special digestive system, she swallowed differently from most animals. She had to be stood on her back legs against the side of her stall, which was an uncomfortable and undifnified stance, to have a dose of medicine poured down her throat." The cat treats it as entertainment and invites Miss Hickory to watch but she has tucked into bed early and grumbles a bit about being disturbed. You know - like that Friday night when you were feeling a cold coming on, you get in your PJs for an early night and inevitably your friend calls, begging you to go out, you envision yourself getting dressed again but quickly realize you're quite content where you are so you decline and bear the chastisement from your friend, soon putting it out of your mind and settling back into your contentment. You think that's the end of it but in this book it is not.
Each chapter sees to focus on a different animal. Chapter Seven is about Fawn and his mother, Doe. Sadly Doe dies at the end of the chapter. it is very, very subtle - a young listener will probably miss it - I almost missed it myself. Fawn had been warned to stay close to home during hunting season but it seems he may have wandered too far. He's a little disoriented on the way home and sees a red berry on the snow but when he got close, "it disappeared, and when he pawed away the snow he came upon nothing but stubble." (p. 59) he finally gets home and finds it empty. "And although Fawn looked for Doe until sunset, blind with the tears in his great dark eyes, he did not find her. At last, when the forest was too dark to trail, Fawn understood that Doe must have been looking for him, following him, watching over him, when he had heard the crashing gunfire." (p. 60) Fawn dreams of his mother and wakes up to Wild Heifer snuggling with him. From then on they are inseparable friends.
And on a much more positive note, Chapter 9 is all about Christmas. Squirrel invites Miss Hickory to the barn on Christmas Eve where, "something wonderful happens ... every Christmas Eve at midnight." (p. 69) Miss Hickory is not interested but, " 'The wonder on Christmas Eve is this,' squirrel continued, not noticing her remark. 'In one of the barn mangers, the animal to whom it belongs finds the wonder. In the fresh grain of his manger, at midnight tonight, there will be a small hollow, although the straw and oats were freshly laid and not touched. It will be the shape of a baby's head and body.' "(p. 70) But Miss Hickory continues to decline the invite.
Her hardheadedness is attributed to the fact, perhaps, that she has a nut for a head. And speaking of nutty, I thought it was funny that when referencing their position in the tree, they say up-boughs and down-boughs as you or I might say upstairs or downstairs. After missing the full Christmas miracle experience Miss Hickory does start to recognize her hardheadedness.
Chapter Ten is a delightful insight into the groundhog and the whole tradition of its seeing its' shadow.
In the next chapter, on the top of page 88, there is a reference to Crow committing murder. It is a measure of his bad behavior but not an actual event. quite the opposite, he takes Miss Hickory for her first flight. It seemed obvious to me from the first mention that Crow would be the vehicle but Miss Hickory was expecting an airport and plane. This is another insight into her character, perhaps a bit of closed mindedness to go along with the hard head.
Closed-minded and hard-headed does not keep her from experiencing fear. Like when she sees Bullfrog shed his winter "wearing apparel" and eat them. A scientist I am not - I had to ask my husband if frogs shed their skin like snakes (they do not). So frog, for whatever weird reason, actually ate his clothing and this freaked Miss Hickory out to such a state she almost got lost in the woods. "It was too bad that she had never heard of April Fools' Day." (p. 99) I thought this part of the book was just weird. if there were any previous hints about it being April Fools' day there were so subtle I missed them. Chapter Ten was obviously talking about Ground Hog's day even though it wasn't stated - in contrast to this chapter which wasn't obvious and then did state it. - Maybe that is the joke?
Like a running joke throughout the story is the plot of the rather forgetful Squirrel who buries nuts and then can't remember their location - almost immediately. What he has in his nest he eats too quickly. Miss Hickory gives him much grief about both of these offenses and in Chapter 14 Squirrel finally stands up for himself after Miss Hickory calls him "a brainless wastrel". " 'Wastrel?' Squirrel jumped up, his rage giving him strength. 'Do you know that if it were not for the nuts I bury and then forget, there would not be so many new nut trees in the woods? I plant trees, whether I mean to or not!' "(p. 109) And in this fit of rage Squirrel finally does what has been foreshadowed the whole book - eats Miss Hickory's nut head.
"Strange as it seems, although separated from her body and beginning to crack in Squirrel's sharp teeth, Miss Hickory's head went right on thinking. In fact it seemed to think faster than it ever had before... ." (p. 110) She realizes the mistakes she's made and the flaws in her personality. One of the final things her head tells her is how selfishly she has lived her whole life. This surprised me in my first reading. The second time I skim-read it and could see where the author tried to make her point. But without this dialogue from the detached head I would not have got it. I have known many people in my life that are independent and do their own thing. They are nice people and don't bother anyone else. Just because they don't volunteer at their church or in their community like I do - I never considered them selfish, I just figured they hadn't "got it" yet. Their proverbial light bulb hasn't gone on to show them the value and rewards of giving to others. Let's hope they don't have to lose their heads to get the message!
Miss Hickory's headless body keeps on walking around. This could be creepy or funny - depending on how you spin it. Tone and inflection is definitely important here! She wanders around blindly until exhaustion overtakes her and she nestles into "a wide upper crotch in the apple tree" (p. 115). Miraculously she becomes a "scion". No - not the car! Thankfully the book explains it well because Not The Scientist here got a general concept but wasn't exactly sure. A scion is "what a new graf is called, put into an old tree to start it blooming and bearing again." (p. 120) "It will buck up the whole tree, give it a new start." (p. 121) Quite the fable-like ending!