The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill

Book review by
Sally Engelfried, Common Sense Media
The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill Book Poster Image
Girl suspects a Communist in her midst in McCarthy-era tale.

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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill takes place in 1953, just as the McCarthy era is gaining momentum and rumors of Communists infiltrating America's factories are spreading wildly. The time period is an important part of the setting, but readers not familiar with the era might want to read the author's note first to get some background; otherwise, they might not understand the implications of Hazel taking Senator Joseph McCarthy's warnings to heart.

Positive Messages

Don't jump to conclusions before you know all the facts, especially when people's lives are at stakes. Being kind to others can make you feel better. If someone doesn't accept an apology the first time, try again.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Hazel is highly intelligent and imaginative, and her classmates don't appreciate her; in particular, two mean girls take every opportunity to make fun of her. However, Hazel herself is often insensitive about her effect on others' feelings and jumps to conclusions about people without thinking about how it may hurt them. Ultimately, Hazel learns from her mistakes. 

Violence & Scariness

When a man approaches Hazel with an ax in his hand, she's afraid he means to hurt her. (He doesn't.) Hazel is afraid the Russians are going to attack and drop a bomb, and she creates a bomb shelter to protect her family.

Language

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill takes place during the McCarthy era, and, because Hazel wholeheartedly believes McCarthy's allegations about Communists and spies, it may not be immediately obvious to young readers that those allegations were part of a much larger political anti-union and fear-building campaign. The author's note explains much of this, calling McCarthy "the ultimate bully," but it's not spelled out quite as clearly in the story. Hazel is highly intelligent and imaginative, but she also can be arrogant and insensitive to others' feelings. Though she makes many alienating mistakes, it's clear she always means well.

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What's the story?

In 1953, shortly after Hazel's best -- and only -- friend moves away, a newspaper article announces that Communist spies have infiltrated her small town of Maple Hill. An avid fan of Nancy Drew, Hazel decides to suss out the spies herself, and she instantly picks out a suspect: the gravedigger her parents recently hired to work in the cemetery they take care of. Joining her in proving her case is new boy Samuel, who is, Hazel's shocked to find, as intelligent as she is, although he's much more prudent. As they research the case together, Hazel uncovers new questions: Why does the gravedigger hang around the grave marked "Alice"? Who is Samuel's father? And why did Hazel's mother never move away from Maple Hill and become a doctor like she'd always dreamed? As Hazel gets closer to solving the mysteries, her empathy deepens and she begins to understand the repercussions of jumping to conclusions before all the facts are known.

Is it any good?

Hazel's observations and "Mysteries" notebook will bring up comparisons to Harriet the Spy, and fans of that novel likely will enjoy Hazel's tenaciousness in getting to the bottom of the mysteries. Hazel is highly intelligent and imaginative, but she also can be arrogant and insensitive to others' feelings. Still, it's clear she always means well, and, even as readers watch her stick her foot in her mouth over and over, most will root for her.

Astute readers will understand that Hazel jumps to conclusions about spies way too quickly, but, without some background on the McCarthy era (which can be found in the author's note), they may not grasp all the implications of this.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the effect newspaper articles about spies could have on a small town such as Maple Hill. Do you think the news media had as powerful an effect in the 1950s as it does today?

  • In addition to Joseph McCarthy, whom the author calls "the ultimate bully" in her end note, what other bullies are shown in The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill? How does the bullying here compare with that in other books or movies you've read or seen that deal with bullying?

  • Besides the references to Joseph McCarthy and the Communists, which other details mark this as historical fiction? What's your favorite era to read about in historical fiction? Why?

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