Book discussed in detail: Miracles on Maple Hill – Virginia Sorensen and Beth and Joe Krush, Harcourt Young Classics, 2003 (reprint of 1956 edition)
Today is the one hundredth birthday of American illustrator Joe Krush. Both in his own work, and especially during his years of collaboration with his wife, Beth, (1918-2009), he made indelible contributions to American books for children (as I wrote before here and here). Please look at today’s blog entry on The Horn Book for my brief celebration of his life and career.
Prizes are ultimately not the final or most significant evaluation of an artist’s work. Although the Krushes never won a Caldecott, they did illustrate one Newbery and one Newbery Honor book. The Newbery Honor went to Gone-Away Lake by Elizabeth Enright, and the Newbery to Virginia Sorensen’s Miracles on Maple Hill. This is a wonderful novel which is only superficially dated and still deserves to be read and taught. The “miracles” of the title are events in the natural world, as well as the support of community in a small maple sugar producing town in rural Pennsylvania. The Krushes’ pictures, as they always do, work inextricably with the text to create characters and settings to which children will relate. Marly is a ten-year-old girl whose father, a veteran and former POW, suffers from what we would today identify as PTSD. Had the book been written today, references to clinical depression, even violence, might enter the story. In 1956, allusions to the father’s anger and exhaustion were enough to explain why the family needs a miracle.
The opening two title pages show a small girl in the distance dressed for winter. She is looking towards a group of run-down buildings and a curing broken fence. This is apparently going to be the setting for a series of miracles, and without this introduction by the Krushes readers might be less intrigued. The village certainly doesn’t look miraculous. Throughout the book Marly’s series of tense, hopeful, and joyous experiences appear in the Krushes’ drawings.
Eager to please her family, Marly decides to surprise everyone by cooking pancakes on the antiquated stove. She winds up starting a fire, risking the anger of her tense and emotionally wounded father. We see her surrounded by black smoke in the black and white line drawing; her hand is raised to her mouth in fear. In the back of the scene stands her father, looking very angry indeed. Sorensen describes one of the series of miracles; instead of shouting or threatening, he relaxes and empathizes with his daughter’s mistake. But readers don’t know that until “reading” the picture and then turning the page.
People are imperfect in the Krushes’ world. Although their pictures convey a kind of mid-century cheeriness, old people’s faces are lined, children are fearful, and physiques may be heavy or very thin.
As Mr. Chris, one of the family’s greatest supporters, recovers from an apparent heart attack, Marly solemnly and carefully brings him a cup of maple syrup to see if it meets his standards:
“Mr. Chris reached out and took it from her. They both moved so carefully one would have thought they carried a magic potion like those in fairy stories – some drink that could make a person grow suddenly tall or suddenly small, like Alice in Wonderland. Maybe some magic liquid that would help Mr. Chris not to be sick anymore, but to live forever and ever.”
In the picture, Mr. Krush smiles and holds out his hand towards Marly, who is focused not on his face, but on carrying the cup of syrup safely. A worn pair of boots sits next to the bed until Mr. Chris can use them again. The adults in Marly’s life watch silently, her mother looking rather hopefully towards her father in profile. The expression of his face is watchful and does not predict the outcome of the scene.
The Krushes have brought their art and their insight into many books for children. I am glad to have the opportunity to thank Joe Krush for his life’s work.