Miss Hickory, by Carolyn Sherwin Bailey, was a Newbery Award winner copyrighted in 1946. As a young girl in the 1960’s I don’t remember how I came upon this book in our school library, but somehow I found it and read it alone in the quiet of my bedroom. I remember being rather creeped out when— I’ll give away an important part of the book here—a squirrel ate Miss Hickory’s head near the end of the book. And yet, I checked it out several more times and re-read it. The best parts of the book that I remember from childhood was Miss Hickory making a home for herself and sewing cute clothes for herself. It caught my imagination and somehow in this picture she reminded me of my grandmother, who was very proper and stylish in the way she dressed.
The lithographs in this book were made by Ruth Gannett. Lithographs were usually designs prepared in metal plates by means of a chemical reaction. The pictures were a delight for me as a child.
The story summary is as follows:
Miss Hickory, a doll made from an apple twig and hickory nut head, is left behind in a corncob cabin made for a little girl named Anne, by her neighbor and friend, Timothy. Winter is coming, the family leaves to spend the winter in the city, and a chipmunk takes over Miss Hickory’s house. A crow helps Miss Hickory find a new house in an abandoned robin’s nest in a McIntosh apple tree in the orchard. At the base of the tree in a hollow between the roots, lives a lazy, gluttonous, squirrel that can’t seem to keep enough nuts stored for the winter.
Miss Hickory meets many other animals throughout the book, and as in most of the books written during this time period, informative facts about these animals are included throughout the story. When Miss Hickory helps free a bullfrog whose legs have frozen in a stream, his ratty, wintered, “clothes” come off in Miss Hickory’s arms. The book says, “She turned away, modestly dropped the clothes and was about to go home when a booming Chunk! Chunk! Ker-Chunk! made her look at Bull Frog. He was transformed. He wore a fresh new suit, greener, yellower, more thickly spotted than the old one. And the old clothes were just vanishing in Bull Frog’s mouth. His belt alone, like a length of spaghetti, dangled from one lip. He gave a mighty swallow and downed it…. ‘Always do this in the spring, but much obliged for your help. Take my old suit off, find a new one underneath, swallow what I can of the old one. So long, lady!'” (p. 99) I had to look this one up, and yes, the bullfrog does shed its skin in the spring and eats it. Humm … and eww.
As always in these classic books, there is a subtle reference to God interspersed in the stories. A family Bible is left behind on a coffee table in the house and wrapped in a white cloth. Miss Hickory attends church on Sundays in the summer, when Jack-in-the-Pulpit preaches.
As a child, I loved the descriptions of Miss Hickory’s clothes— “She wore a dress of layer upon layer of golden beech leaves. Her coat was made of short, low-growing moss, thick and warm, with tiny larch cones for buttons and a border of creeping pine. Her close-fitting hat was little more than a cap, but smart. It matched her coat, being made of green moss, and it had a bunch of red-alder berries and one moss plume for trimming. She had made herself a little round muff of a scarlet maple leaf and lined it with fern down. She looked years younger. Squirrel thought her enchanting.” (p. 37) (Much like my grandmother!)
The book has a somewhat happy ending as Miss Hickory, in thinking back on her winter, remembers how rude and selfish she had been at times. She desires now, since the squirrel just ate her head, to do something worthy to be a help or blessing to others. She climbs the old McIntosh apple tree and there is grafted back into the branches. Apparently grafting a new branch in, restores an old tree and helps it produce once more. Miss Hickory is completely happy when Anne returns and climbs the tree with Timothy and recognizes Miss Hickory grafted into the tree. Miss Hickory feels good about herself as she thinks about the day she will give Anne an apple from the tree.
As a child, I was unhappy with the ending. It left me sad that she lost her head and would not be a little doll anymore. I didn’t care about apples or grafting, and it just about gave me nightmares to think about that mean squirrel. But, it didn’t stop me from checking out the book several times over the years as I was growing up, because I loved all the other parts so much.
This may be a book you would want to read with your children instead of letting them read it alone. You can downplay the cruelty of the squirrel and put more stress on how pleased Miss Hickory was to finally not be thinking only of herself, but producing fruit. You could also turn that into a Bible lesson on the fruits of the Spirit.
Are there books you loved from childhood, even though they may have scared you a little as you read them?