Strawberry Hill by Mary Ann Hoberman

The second afternoon of my 2 day weekend is spent yet again reading another children’s fiction; Strawberry Hill. I had picked it up along with Penny From Heaven at the library. Despite trying to get away from the onslaught of what feels like slaps in the face from reading parenting books, I find myself being bombarded with detailed examples of what is criticized in parenting books in these novels. Interesting innit? Just goes to show how pervasive poor parenting is. I am not alone. Don’t know if that makes me feel better or worse.

This story is set in the Great Depression. Glimpses of hoboes are inserted in the story, but you don’t really get the visual image of the horrors of the Great Depression. The character, Allie, is ten. So maybe that’s why the depiction of the horrors of the Great Depression is toned down for the intended readers.

Allie’s father lost his job, like any other working father during the Great Depression. However, he managed to get another job in another city, and in the beginning of the story, Allie’s mom tells her of the great news; they’re going to move to where her father works. Allie is not that happy because she loves where she is living even though it’s not her own house. She, her mother, and younger brother Danny are boarders at Mrs. Greenberg’s two storey house. Her best friend, Ruthie is just a staircase away. The prospect of moving to another place didn’t really bode well with her until she was told that the street they were going to move to is named Strawberry Hill.

I share Allie’s fantasy; a grassy field of sloping hill sprinkled with fat juicy red strawberries. Unfortunately this fantasy is shattered by stark reality. Just because the street’s named Strawberry Hill, it doesn’t mean it’s littered with strawberries. Her mother is a frugal housewife, typical of housewives during the Great Depression. Allie seems to have some reservations about her mother’s money-saving attitude and temper. In two consecutive days, I end up reading two different novels with mother characters who are less than likeable. I wonder if it’s a sign from above.

Allie becomes friends with the next door neighbor, Martha, a Catholic who goes to Catholic school. Right across the street lives another girl, Mimi, slightly on the plump side, and on the less fortunate end of the popular girl continuum. I’m glad the author decided to make Allie a very nice girl, for she befriends Mimi despite hearing less than admirable qualities about her. Mimi’s mother, Mrs. Minnick, is a plump lady who sits around smoking and dishing cookies after cookies to her daughter, accompanied by a dishing of snide and sarcastic remarks. It doesn’t sound like a nice house to frequent. Mimi’s father also has a dark background, and Mimi herself seems like a child who is affected by troubles at home.

Allie’s mother strikes me as being the kind of mother you’d love to have, yet one that you wish would be more laid back, like her father, though the fact that her father smokes kind of takes off a lot of points I would have given him had he not been a smoker. I was both awed and appalled when her mother took her hand and marched her to Martha’s house (her next door neighbor) and practically scolded Cynthia for calling Allie ‘A dirty Jew,’. I felt like Cynthia deserved it, but the fact that an adult got involved in this little conflict spoils it all. Even Allie realized the aftermath of that incident’; it will only teach Cynthia not to call her names in front of her face. I’m sure this incident would make a good example of bad parenting in those parenting books.

Religion played quite a role in this book, as Judaism is pitched against Catholicism. When Allie asks her father what happens to Jews after they die, he says,

“Jews go to heaven like everyone else. We probably even go more because we’re the chosen people. But we don’t brag about it.”

Allie’s family, being Jews, celebrate Christmas too, though her mother draws the line at getting a Christmas tree and putting a wreath at the front door. This made me think of Muslims celebrating their celebrations while also taking part in Christmas celebrations, at least the commercial aspects of it, that makes it a ‘non-religious celebration’. If you think about it, Allie could easily be substituted by Amina and ‘dirty Jew’ could be replaced by ‘terrorist’. The thing is though you don’t really hear much about Muslims in America during the Great Depression. And another thing, at that time, Islam didn’t really become a concern yet, at least not as much as today.

Mimi steals a place in my heart, as does Allie. Mimi is a lovable and adorable character. I felt nothing but love and sympathy for her, and so when she excelled in what she failed in before, I was beaming too on her behalf. I had expected more conflicts to abound in Allie’s school life, but the author has probably decided to keep the conflicts around Allie’s neighborhood instead. I love Miss Kerns, Allie’s fourth grade teacher whose bark is worse than her bite. She plays quite a significant role in Allie’s school life.

I was really surprised that there was a touch of romance in this book though, seeing as how the main character is ten years old. Personally, I wouldn’t expect such things (though quite mild by mainstream standards) to occur for the intended readership, though I suppose developmentally they could, depending on culture. Allie is quite somewhat consumed by this romance too, even at home, and in the scene where she hides the aggie in her tight fist from her younger brothers’s prying eyes, a teenage version of her flitted across my mind. It was not that hard to imagine. I wish the author had done away with this aspect of Allie’s life to give this book complete innocence.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed reading this book as I did Penny From Heaven, though it didn’t really elicit strong emotions on my part while reading, as what happened when I was reading Penny From Heaven. If you enjoy strawberries, little girls, and everything sweet, this is the book for you.

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