Book: The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill
Author: Megan Frazer Blakemore
Age Range: 8-12
The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill is a historical mystery novel set in a small Vermont town in 1953. Hazel Kaplansky lives with her parents in a home adjacent to the graveyard that they manage. She's prickly and smart, and doesn't fit in very well, despite having grown up in Maple Hill. At a time when everyone is nervous about Russian spies and possible nuclear attacks, Hazel is suspicious of the new gravedigger, a man with the too-banal-to-be-true name of Mr. Jones. Hazel soon enlists lonely new kid Samuel Butler in her investigation. But she soon learns that Samuel has secrets, too, which everyone seems to know about except Hazel. Hazel and Samuel's developing friendship is set against a backdrop that includes a McCarthy investigation of the men in the local factory, and corresponding swirl of local rumor and innuendo.
I think that Blakemore does a nice job integrating the historical time period with Hazel's story. She introduces lots of details, but keeps all of them tied closely to Hazel's perspective. For instance, she captures Hazel's mortification when she sneezes during an air raid drill. The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill covers everything from the scars that remain from the depression and influenza epidemic to how people treated unwed mothers during and after World War II to the fear and gossip triggered by McCarthyism. And she slips in little tidbits, too, like the fact that Alaska isn't a state yet.
There is a bit of an old-fashioned feel to The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill, as you would expect from a book so decisively set in the 50s. Bike riding, microfiche searches at the library, only mothers expected to show up at school events, etc. I think that the presence of a graveyard, together with active spying, will still keep kids interested, but there's always that risk with historical fiction that it will appeal more to adults than it does to the kids. There's a pretty clear sub-text in some of the scenes, where the adults, particularly Hazel's parents, talk over her head. I suppose that kids who understand this will have the chance to feel superior. Certainly I would expect young readers to be surprised at how different the world was 60 years ago.
Anyway, I quite liked Hazel, despite (or perhaps because of) that fact that she isn't completely likable at all. She makes mistakes, she runs away with her assumptions, and she is flat out wrong about most things. But she's smart and loves books and doesn't really try to fit in - she is utterly herself. When a popular girl invites Hazel, unexpectedly, to a birthday party, she attends only so that she can conduct her investigation. She attempts to turn a mausoleum into a fallout shelter. She does remind me a bit of Harriet the Spy, writing things down in a little notebook, though the lives of the two girls are quite different.
Here's a snippet, to give you a feel for Hazel:
"What was in that box?
Hazel sat up in the tree chewing her lip. Something was not on the up-and-up. Last year she had read every single one of the Nancy Drew mysteries, and just like Nancy always did, she had a hunch, but you didn't need to be a young sleuth like Hazel and Nancy to know that when a person locked something up, he was hiding something. And just like that, Hazel had her first real mystery." (Chapter 2)
"It should come as no surprise that Hazel loved the library. She loved everything about it, even the smell, like paper, and paste, and sometimes, when Richard Begos was there, a little bit like pipe smoke." (Chapter 6)
Despite the presence of some mean-spirited, gossipmongers in the town, there are several wonderful adult role models for Hazel, including a service station owner and a librarian. I also liked the fact that the conflict that Hazel has with a couple of mean girls is not resolved to any great degree. This comes across as realistic, and Hazel never feels like she needs their approval anyway.
A hint of a mystery is left open at the end of The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill. It's not a cliffhanger, just something to keep the reader guessing. Kids who enjoy mysteries or realistic historical fiction (like Gary Schmidt's Okay for Now) will definitely want to check this one out. I enjoyed it as an adult, and I think that I would have loved it when I was ten (having been something of a geek like Hazel). Although this is Hazel's story, the engaging cover should help it to appeal to boys, too. Recommended!
Publisher: Bloomsbury (@BWKids)
Publication Date: May 6, 2014
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher
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