A measure of the brokenness of modern society is the totality with which we have forgotten the simplest and most vital of things. The ability to exist in the present, to observe and rejoice in one’s surroundings—as the saying goes, to live simply and to simply live—is lacking in most of us. Nowhere is this inability to embrace life’s basic vitality more tragic than when it infects the young. Our society has simultaneously deprived children of basic frames of reference that once made secure exploration of life’s gifts possible, and thrust upon them a cacophonous array of electronic and other distractions that cripple their ability to see, let alone understand, the world around them. In so doing, we deny them the tools for growth and for healing.
Set in western Pennsylvania in the immediate aftermath of World War II, Miracles on Maple Hill returns us not to a simpler time, but to a time when simpler means for growth and healing remained accessible. Ten-year-old Marly and twelve-year-old Joe live middle-class lives in an apartment in Pittsburgh. But all is not well with their family. Dale, their father, has returned from the war deeply traumatized by combat and years as a prisoner of war. Unable to handle loud voices or noises, he’s prone to lash out at his wife Lee and their children at the slightest pretext. He’s tired all of the time. Once a singer, his voice has fallen silent.
Hoping to move Dale to a more peaceful environment, they take up what they intend to be temporary residence in a dilapidated house deep in the country, a place called Maple Hill that Lee inherited from her family. Conditions there are Spartan, and much work lies ahead to make the place livable. Marly, though, is on the lookout for miracles—the biggest one of all being healing for her father. As she quickly learns, no conjuring is necessary. All she has to do is live in the moment and open her eyes to what her great-grandmother used to call the “all outdoors.”
Their neighbors, the boisterous and lovable Mr. and Mrs. Chris, introduce Marly and her family to their first miracles by teaching them the immersive art of tapping sugar maple trees for sap, to produce syrup. Mr. Chris, an elemental being with the stoutness and creeping frailty of an ancient oak tree, teaches Marly and Joe to observe and rejoice in the tiniest details of the world around them—the earth, the seasons, the flora and fauna, and the cycle of life as it brings both joy and sadness. As Dale follows their example, he rediscovers his inner core and begins to restore his fractured being. In time, he learns once more to sing.
Marly and her family pass through one year at Maple Hill, from winter to spring, summer, fall, and back to winter again. Over the course of this period Marly, once timid, becomes adept at understanding the inner “pushing” that makes plants and animals of all varieties grow and strive for life. She also comes to understand the basic textures of earth and stone, and the simultaneously delicate and irresistible character of water. Life in the country isn’t without challenges. Among the characters she and her brother meet is an elderly hermit named Harry, who also seeks refuge from the war that ravaged his family and claimed his son. Through him, Marly and Joe learn not just about life, but about love and the necessity of sacrifice.
Miracles on Maple Hill is not so much a story as a meditation. The language is gentle, and the principles Sorensen advocates are wonderfully simple. It’s a sad thought that this book—which won a Newberry Award upon its initial publication—might seem incomprehensible to those modern youth who have lost touch with things like acceptance and observation. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a young adult book more completely out of step with the adult political preoccupations that totally dominate the genre today. That may provide one key to why young people struggle and suffer as they attempt to navigate the complex maze that their parents have laid out for them in the twenty-first century.
Ed Lengel is an author, a speaker, and a storyteller.