The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill by Megan Frazer Blakemore

There is so much to love about this book, I really don't know where to begin.
The novel is set in the 1950's in a small town in Vermont, USA.

In the Author's note at the back of the book, Blakemore puts this era into context:

"In this culture of fear, neighbours turned on neighbours. In a 1954 poll, 78 percent of Americans thought that people should report their neighbours or acquaintances to the FBI if they suspected them of Communism. In one place in 1950, a customer reported the owners of a Chinese restaurant as Communist because they were Chinese.

History does not only take place on a grand scale, at the level of nations of world leaders. It happens in big cities and small towns, in neighbourhoods and houses across the world." (P309-310)

This historical microcosm is spelled out powerfully in The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill

Hazel Kaplansky is a gifted young girl caught up in the unamerican frenzy of McCarthyism. Her overly active imagination (and penchant for Nancy Drew and other mysteries) leads her into seeing spies and mysteries all over the place, even when they are nonexistent. Her misguided enthusiasm, and habit of acting before she thinks, gets her into a trouble numerous times. In spite of, or maybe because of this, I came to adore her. Hazel represents all of us: our potential to do misguided hurtful things, and our potential to do good when we learn from them.

Luckily Hazel is guided by many smart adults along the way.

Her very perceptive principal gives her these wise words of advice, "When we have friends, we take them as they are, faults and all, because sometimes their faults are out of their control." P134

Mr Short, one of her arch enemies' father, explains that, "At times like this, the truth has a way of getting twisted." P259

Miss Lerner, the children's librarian, takes her into the back room and has an adult conversation to help Hazel understand her best friend, Samuel Butler, better.

Mr Wall, the garage owner, and Hazel have deep philosophical conversations. In reference to finding out information that changes how you perceive someone, he explains, "I guess the important thing to remember, though, is that you have to think about who they are to you, and who they might be, not who they were." P268
One fascinating component of this book was that Hazel and Samuel engage in a fascinating, complex and authentic research process to find out the truth about the past.

While I adored this book, I am not so sure about it's appeal to my students. It wants a sophisticated reader who isn't going to be dismayed by the slow start. On the other hand, like all great fiction, it leaves us with questions about what it means to be human, and like all great historical fiction, it helps us to be more mindful of the circumstances in our own time.

4/5 stars

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