Friday, May 23, 2014

Book Talk :: The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill


I cannot tell a lie - I loved this book!

I rarely buy books on a whim - and typically not without the recommendation of a friend or two or three. I'm trying to remember what exactly I was searching for on Amazon when this popped on to my screen. One of those, "if you like books by this author, try this..." A quick skim through the description on Amazon, plus a cover that enticed me and I was convinced enough to give it a try. I'm so glad I did!

Hazel Kaplansky is a fifth grader in search a little mystery and adventure. It is 1953 - the age of McCarthyism and the search is on for communists under every bush and around every door. Even arriving on her doorstep, in the small town of Maple Hill, Vermont, where Hazel's parents run the town's cemetery. Hazel has read every Nancy Drew story and just knows that she has found a spy in her parent's new employed grave digger, Mr. Jones. Hazel teams up with Samuel Butler, a new boy in her class, to try and ferret out why Mr. Jones has come to their small town. Hazel also is curious about Samuel - everyone in the town seems to know something about him but her and she is determined to find out why people treat him differently. Throughout the course of the story, Hazel learns a bit how to differentiate between what she imagines to be true and actual facts and how spreading stories and rumor can be more costly that one might think.

This was a great upper elementary aged story. It gives a overview of what life would have been like in the early 50's, after the end of WW2, when our nation was right in the middle of Cold War America. It captures the fear, the uncertainty, and the speculation that was in the current events of the time and how it could trickle down, even to the smaller towns. For example:
Hazel was not afraid of much, but she was afraid of Communists. The Russians had been American allies in the Second World War, but after the war, things had soured and now the Russians were turning all the countries around them Communist, and they wanted to do the same thing to America. They were just waiting for the opportunity to come over and make all the people here exactly like them: no choices, no freedom, and no ice-cream floats from the soda fountain in the drugstore, even if you'd been on your best behavior all day. Samuel had been right that the Greeks had started democracy, which meant that the people got a say in how things worked. Americans had those rights, and the Communists wanted to take that away. And now there was a chance that thee were Red spies right in her town! (p. 42)
Hazel was also an extremely likeable character. A lot smart and a little bit quirky. I loved when they would share a bit of what was going on inside her mind.
Hazel liked to imagine what Miss Lerner's [the librarian's] house was like. She pictured it as just like the library, full of books with neat labels on the spines. If her parents were ever to die in a horrible, tragic accident, she hoped that Miss Lerner would adopt her, and they would catalog books all the time. (p. 45)
Another example, when she is describing the local gas station where her friend Mr. Wall works:
Hazel liked the mix of gasoline, tar, rubber, and tobacco. It smelled like a job well done. (p. 33) 
She's smart and has a plan, though sometimes it doesn't work out quite like she anticipates it will. She's a loyal friend to Samuel. Even though she gets herself into a scrape or two, one of the things that I really like about her is that she was teachable. She learned from her mistakes and went back and corrected them or moved forward knowing she needed to do things differently.

The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill is one that I'll be handing over to N1 (and maybe even N2) this year as we participate in Cycle 3 of Classical Conversations this coming year. Our focus is American History, and this will be a excellent, age appropriate way for her to get a picture of this era in our nation's history. And, besides the excellent historical background, it's a great little mystery with some life lessons in there that I can heartily get behind. I might even try this as a read-aloud with all my girls - I think they would all be able to understand, and most definitely enjoy, the story. Once I started it, I had a hard time putting it down. This is the first book that I've ready by Megan Frazer Blakemore and I'm looking forward to checking out her other elementary aged story (The Water Castle) soon.

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