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Monday, October 11, 2010

Strawberry Hill, written by Mary Ann Hoberman. Little, Brown. Hachette, 2009. $17.99 ages 8 and up

"I had to admit that we'd really had a good time together. When I thought about it, it reminded me of how I used to feel sometimes playing with Ruthie. And then I thought that I hardly ever felt that way with Martha. Maybe it was because Martha almost always decided what we were going to do. And some of my favorite things, like paper dolls and hopscotch, we hardly ever did because Claire said they were babyish. But I still liked Martha better than Mimi."

When Allie's Dad can't find work and the family must move to a new home, her imagination runs wild when she learns that they are going to move to Strawberry Hill. She is aware that she will miss her best friend, her school and the life she has known until now; but, she is so excited at the thought of all the strawberries that await her at her new house. This is her first disappointment. When they get there, no strawberries are evident and there is no real hill. We have all been there.

Mary Ann Hoberman creates a lovely piece of historical fiction that gives authenticity to the wide range of feelings and experiences that Allie has in her first year in Stamford. The characters are so authentic, honest and vulnerable. In a short interview with the author, she said that her first novel began as a bit of memoir. She wanted to share her early life with her readers and to think back on it herself. She writes with style, sensitivity and substance.

Allie faces the normal bumps on the road as a fourth-grade girl in a new community, at a new school and navigating all that this 'newness' entails. Friendships with two neighbors are the focus as she settles in to her house and her new life. The girls are as different as day and night and Allie struggles to sort out the feelings that she has for each of them. She meets Martha first, and is enamored of her life and her presence. Martha is Catholic and goes to a parochial school. Mimi is Jewish (as is Allie) and they will attend school together in the fall. Martha and Allie spend time together happily, until Cynthia returns from her vacation. Jealousy rears its ugly head, and things go off course in a number of ways. Despite some troubles, Allie is convinced that Martha is best friend material. Mimi, on the other hand, lives in a house that leaves something to be desired with a mother who is less than appealing. Her father has gone, and the two are left to fend for themselves most of the time. Add to that the fact that Mimi is overweight and not a good student. She is staying behind in third grade to improve her reading skills. Mimi is also sensitive, interesting and anxious to spend as much time as possible with Allie and her little brother.  The two relationships have some unexpected twists, as is so typical of friendship at their age.

The story, with its many little vignettes, gives an honest look at some of the difficulties of life at this place in history, but they do not overshadow the story being told. The hobo, the homemade cookies, the piggy bank that yields $1.16 to almost buy a book for a friend, and fathers seeking employment are short, sharp glimpses at life being lived during the Depression.

You know that you are in the hands of a seasoned storyteller as you enjoy this wonderfully wrought novel. The balance that she creates between Allie and the many others who people this story allows her readers to fully realize some of the struggles and accomplishments that happen during the first year spent on Strawberry Hill.  Nostalgically it takes me back to a simpler time, when despite a lack of finances and a glut of material things, we took great pleasure in neighborhood friendships and activities...and reminds me that friendships were not always easy, but they were worth the work. Allie helps us to understand that. The final scene provides the small, but significant surprise that is the perfect touch to end this appealing and much appreciated book.

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