Monday, August 3, 2015

Nature is the Scene Stealer in this New Hampshire Tale

Carolyn Sherwin Bailey's Miss Hickory is Not Your Ordinary Doll

I avoid books about dolls, and I avoid books about dolls for a very good reason.

Dolls are creepy.  

Baby dolls, Barbie dolls, G.I. Joe dolls, it doesn't matter.  Plastic or porcelain, hand painted or homemade, their little button eyes take in every detail of our pitiful human lives and store it away for future use against us. Don't buy their inanimate line; there's no such thing as an inanimate object. Just ask anyone who owns a set of keys or a pair of soupspoons. They walk.

And don't even get me started on ventriloquist dummies; those suckers are the ringleaders of our eventual overthrow. 

No greater visionary than Rod Serling was fully aware of this, and tried to warn us within the parameters of the time with the resources available.  The Twilight Zone gave us two heads-up: "Living Doll" Talking Tina wiping out tough guy Telly Savalas, and in "The Dummy" Cliff Robertson learns an unpleasant lesson of tables turned.  Even the vastly inferior Night Gallery pulled itself out of the pits of network marketing driven dreck and produced "The Doll", which was so hideous that I still remember my first look at her face over forty years later. Nightmare city.

I tend to avoid doll books.

So, it was with some trepidation that I selected Miss Hickory for this week's review - we all need to face our fears, don't we? - but I am very glad that I did. I expected to have to plow through it, and that was the case for the first few pages, but after that, the book positively sailed, all the way to its unexpected but perfect conclusion.

Book #28: Miss Hickory (1946) by Carolyn Sherwin Bailey, illustrated by Ruth Chrisman Gannett. 123 pages.

Miss Hickory is a doll.

Not a store-bought doll, but a handmade doll, a country doll, with the body of an apple-wood twig and a hickory nut for a head.

When the story opens, it's just the beginning of autumn, and Miss Hickory is content as can be living in a corn-cob house underneath a lilac bush at the Old Place, a New Hampshire farm owned by Great-granny Brown and her granddaughter, Ann.  The corn-cob house had been built for Miss Hickory by Tim, a boy who lived the next farm over.

Miss Hickory assumes that once winter approaches, she and her corncob house will again be moved into the warm kitchen windowsill in the house, and be visited everyday by Ann.

But this year is different. Miss Hickory's friend Crow visits her at home and informs her that the family has moved to Boston for the winter. Crow is aware that Miss Hickory was once part of a tree and had great respect for her ancestry. Plus, like all crows, he enjoys a good gossip.

Miss Hickory at first refuses to believe it, but once the truth sets in, she asks Crow how she is to get through the harsh New England winter. Crow tells her that she will have to move.

Miss Hickory refuses to even entertain the thought of moving, and Crow calls her hardheaded and flies off. Miss Hickory knows she is hardheaded, but the thought of having to move makes her break down and cry.

The next day Miss hickory goes out to find berries for canning, and encounters her friend Mr. T. Willard Brown, a barn cat and hunter of some renown. He confirms Crow's bad news, and further informs her that Chipmunk, that spoiled creature, has moved into her corncob house and expects to stay for the winter.  Miss Hickory is unsure what to do, but Crow comes by later that same day and informs her that he's found a new home for her, an abandoned robin's nest in an old apple tree. Miss Hickory thanks him, and Crow again flies off, to the South for the winter, his parting words to Miss Hickory being keep your sap running!

Miss Hickory soon adapts, fortifying her nest, making new clothes from the woodland plants, and getting herself and her home ready for winter. She meets and becomes something like a friend to Squirrel, who himself lives in the bottom of the tree hosting Miss Hickory's new home. She scolds Squirrel not to be lazy, to gather food for the winter, and he does.  But underneath their friendship is Squirrel's fascination with Miss Hickory's head - it is a juicy looking hickory nut - and Miss Hickory's uneasy knowledge of that fascination. 

Miss Hickory has further adventures, helping the browbeaten hen-pheasants join together and form a Ladies Aid Society to support themselves over the long winter. T. Willard-Brown invites her to come by the barn and see take a dose of medicine, but she declines. Cow's also recently given birth to twins, who were as different as sisters could be from each other. Barn-Heifer was sweet and home-loving, while Wild-Heifer would often run away from the stifling farmyard, often dragging post and rope behind her.

During one of her escapes, Wild-Heifer befriends Fawn, who was orphaned when her mother Doe was shot. The two become inseparable.

At Christmas, Miss Hickory is invited to the barn again, this time by Squirrel,  for the celebration that takes place at midnight on Christmas Eve. He tells her that on that night, all animals, large or small, wild or tame, of Earth or with God, go to the barn to see a miracle, and no one is afraid of animals larger than themselves. 

Miss Hickory dismisses Squirrel's story, Squirrel calls her hardheaded, and he leaves, feeling insulted.  Miss Hickory later thinks upon Squirrel's accusation, and realizes that it's true; her hard head made it difficult for her mind to grasp new ideas. She resolves to visit the barn the next morning, to see what all the fuss is about, but when she is awoken that night by a loud sweet chiming, she gets up and makes her way over. Miss hickory sees Fawn walking side-by-side with Doe, Squirrel walking with his mother, and a host of exotic animals, including peacocks and camels, enter the barn. Squirrel spots her and tells her to hurry, but Miss Hickory is too late, everyone inside was able to see the miracle at midnight except her; she was too far away to make it in time.

Miss Hickory feels sad and confused. She tells herself that she should have listened to Squirrel, and not been so hardheaded.

Later in the winter Miss Hickory meets Groundhog, is reunited with Crow, and helps Bullfrog out of an icy situation. Returning home, she discovers that Robin has returned and reclaimed his nest. Miss Hickory doesn't panic, she simply decides that it's time to find a new home. She realizes that she hasn't seen Squirrel for months, and reasons that he must have moved.  Miss Hickory decides to move into Squirrel's old home. 

At first glance, Squirrel's house appears empty. Then, a pile of what Miss Hickory thought were gray rags begin to move.  It's Squirrel, and he's starving, because he ate all of his winter store of nuts months ago and has had nothing to eat since. Miss Hickory starts to chastise him for his gluttony, then stops, but it's too late.  Squirrel has grabbed her hickory nut head off of her apple-wood twig body and tossed it into his mouth. As Squirrel chews, Miss Hickory reviews her life, deploring her hardheadedness but acknowledging that overall it was a pleasant life filled with food, friends and nature, and wishes that she had lived a little less selfishly.

Her head now gone, Miss Hickory makes her way of Squirrel's home. Squirrel is horrified with shock at  seeing  his friend's headless body walk out his door. As a result, he reforms repents eating Miss Hickory's head, and becomes a good squirrel forever after.

Miss Hickory, her sap now freely running, feeling incredibly happy, makes her way to the base of the old apple tree and begins to climb, passing her old robin's nest, and climbing higher, to a spot where the sun would be stronger, the winds higher and the rains like a shower bath. Her body felt knobby, as if she were budding.  Leaving all of her past life below, she pushed herself into a wide upper  fork in the tree, and rested.

In May, Ann and Great-granny Brown return. Ann is unhappy to find the corn-cob house destroyed and Miss Hickory gone. Tim, walking by, tells her that she's too old to be upset over a doll, but it doesn't matter, Ann is still upset. Tim, listening to the distant caw of Crow, whistles back, and tells Ann that Crow is telling him something important, and the two should follow the sound of his cawing. Eventually, Crow leads them to an old apple tree, a McIntosh planted by Tim's grandfather, that hasn't been pruned or grafted in years. The tree, barren for years, was now thick with blooms.

Crow caws again, but the two can't see him anymore, so Tim climbs up the tree in an attempt to locate the old bird. Finally, Tim sees him sitting just above a high blooming branch that was pinker than pink and pointed towards the mountain.  He calls down to Ann to climb up and look, and she does.

Tim points to the branch and explains that it's a scion, but he doesn't know who put it there.  The branch has two arms, a waist and two legs, garlanded in pink blooms. Tim explains that a scion is a new graft, put in an old tree to start it blooming and bearing again.  Ann thought that the scion looked like Miss Hickory, but didn't voice the thought aloud. 

Crow gave a final caw then flew away, and a happy Miss Hickory dreamed of the day that she would give to Ann, who recognized her, a big red apple.

Miss Hickory is essentially a book about nature, based on Bailey's years of experience of living on her own  farm, Hillcrest, in Temple, New Hampshire. Finding herself at one point stranded in Florida and desparatley homesick, Bailey decided to write a story based on her own Miss Hickory, a childhood doll fashioned by her grandmother from a pioneer design.

There is no driving plot behind Miss Hickory, no mystery to be solved or treasure to be found, no good versus evil showdown or duplicitious dealings to uncover and reveal. The nature writing, descriptions of the woodlands, the changes wrought by the seasons on plant and animal is accurate, detailed without being weighty, and imbued with an underlying sense of gratitude, an emotion sorely lacking in present day society.

Miss Hickory herself is a pistol, a woman quite capable of taking care of herself, thank you very much, and full of sharply worded advice for those less capable, a population that encompasses everyone else she knows with the sole exception of Crow.

Sharp words or not, Miss Hickory has something in common with young readers. She too is a small being forced to navigate through the Land of Big, a journey that they know from firsthand experience  is fraught with danger and uncertainty. Luckily, Miss Hickory has her friends, but even with her friends caution is necessary; Squirrel just can't help himself from stealing disquieting glances at her hickory nut head.

That covetousness on the part of Squirrel leads to the only problematic passage in the story.  Squirrel, overcome by hunger, snatches Miss Hickory's head from her body and proceeds to chow down, while Bailey recounts Miss Hickory's last thoughts for posterity. There are some among us who find that visual image disturbing, as well as the following scene of Miss Hickory's headless body striding out the opening of Squirrel's house. Bailey's description of Squirrel's reaction to the sight, "…gave him such a shock that he chattered to himself for days and when he decided that he had only dreamed the ghost-walking of his friend, he reformed."

Something to think about when you're selecting read-alouds for the classroom.

I've made the point before (and will again, many times) that the book belongs to the author and the story belongs to the reader.  Carolyn Sherwin Bailey celebrates rebirth in Miss Hickory, the ongoing rebirth of the natural world through the seasons, and the personal rebirth of the individual through the Christian vision. The reader can choose that version of the story, or they can choose their own. Either way, Miss Hickory is a book to be shared.

Miss Hickory was the winner of the 1947 Newbery Medal Award.

Miss Hickory at

Carolyn Sherwin Bailey was born in Hoosick Falls, NY in October 1875, the daughter of scientist Charles Henry and Teacher and writer Emma Frances Bailey. In 1936, at the age of 61, she married Eben Clayton Hill, a radiologist.

Bailey earned her undergraduate degree from Teacher's College, Columbia University in 1896, studied at the newly established (1907) Montessori School in Rome and the New York School of Social Work.  She worked as a teacher, principal, social worker at the Warren Goddard House in NYC, author and editor of children's books.

Bailey wrote over seventy books in the course of her career, the majority books, story collections, and historical fiction and non-fiction for children, but also books on social work, the Montessori method, child psychology, and the art of storytelling.

Bailey died in December of 1961.

Carolyn Sherwin Bailey's books free at Project Gutenberg.

Carolyn Sherwin Bailey's audiobooks free at LibriVox.

Carolyn Sherwin Bailey's collection at Southern Connecticut State University libraries.

Ruth Chrisman Gannett's illustrations were one of the primary reasons I decided to review Miss Hickory.  From the first sight of Miss Hickory's celebration her new outfit of a moss blouse, a leaf skirt and a blossom garland on the cover to our final view of her as a fully flowering branch on the old apple tree, each illustration offers a wealth of detail and succeeds in conveying not only the action of the scene but the emotional state of the subject, be it Miss Hickory, Squirrel, Crow or Bull Frog.

As far as my favorite illustration, it's a tie between the two page procession of the animals on Christmas Eve to the single page depiction of Ann, Tim and Crow climbing the old apple tree at the end of the book. They're all wonderful.

Ruth Chrisman Gannett was born in 1896 in Santa Ana, California and died in 1979 in West Cornwell, Connecticut. In 1931 she married author and literary critic Lewis Stiles Gannett, whose daughter was Ruth Stiles Gannett, author of My Father's Dragon and other books that were illustrated by her stepmother.

After teaching art in California public schools, Gannett moved to New York City, where she worked for Vanity Fair and illustrated children's books.  She was the illustrator of My Mother is the Most Beautiful Woman in the World by Becky Reyher, a 1946 Caldecott Medal Honor Book.

Ruth Chrisman Gannett papers at the University of Minnesota libraries.

My Father's Dragon text and illustrations at the University of Pennsylvania libraries.


  1. I remember reading Miss Hickory to my children when they were small--thanks for the memory!

  2. Thank you for posting this! I read "Miss Hickory" many years ago and again just recently. Love the connection with nature.