Book Report :: Miss Hickory

This book by CAROL SHERWIN BAILEY has haunted me since my youth. I knew there was something about the ending that was disturbing but happily my brain had repressed exactly what that was. One visit to eBay and a couple of days later, I had the answer in my hands. It was time to re visit the nightmare world of MISS HICKORY. First of all the character of Miss Hickory is kind of a jerk. She’s a prickly fussbudget, know-it-all twig doll with a nut for a head (A hickory nut natch). She spends her days drinking tea and making preserves in a corncob house that she obsessively cleans as she makes critical judgments of the animals around her. She finds out from the gossipy crow that her human hosts and the child that watches out for her have moved to Boston and abandoned her for the winter. Miss H at first refuses to believe this news. She usually spends the winter indoors on the kitchen windowsill. How will she survive the harsh New Hampshire winter on her own with just a tiny corncob house to guard against the elements? Well she needn’t concern herself with the corncob house because in short time, a chipmunk squatter takes over the digs and she’s left homeless…

Crow, who Hickory never misses a chance to talk smack about, is kind enough to lead her to an empty nest in a bush where she can lay her head. She’s hardly grateful but decides it will do, as she hasn’t many other options. Around this time, she meets a squirrel who lives in a hole beneath her bush (Was this Crow’s actual plan)?! The squirrel is taken with the twig doll, and the two exchange insults camouflaged as quippy banter. The squirrel seldom takes his eyes off her nut head, even as she uncomfortably tries to hide it by pulling her hat down. Slowly Squirrel begins to actively stalk the prissy Miss, and she sometimes will wake up in the middle of the night in her nest to find him staring down at her somewhat lasciviously. Other times he crawls into the nest with her under the excuse to keep her warm.

Throughout the winter, Hickory leads a harsh life that she is not accustomed to and shares relationships with various animals that are unsuccessful in hiding their disdain for her snarky ways. After a while though, she learns to fend for herself and be less needy and demanding. She even helps a couple of critters along the way and experiences a more gratifying existence, the bounty of personal growth. Sadly, it is this contentment and self-reliance, married with a general feeling of hope for the future that spurs a swift, steady decline into hell worthy of a HUBERT SELBY, JR. novel. It seems even in the world of an animated stick doll, pride goeth before the fall…

Spring finally comes to the farm, and Miss Hickory giddily makes new clothes by sewing leaves together. She crafts a kick-ass hat out of cherry blossoms and some killer slippers as well. She looks hot. She’s feeling young and spry. The winter has passed and the world lay before her like a shiny jewel created for her alone. After her foliage make over, she returns to her nest to find it occupied by two breeder birds and their recently laid eggs. She tells them to get out of her house, but they verbally attack her and explain that it’s their pad and that she has stayed there rent free. Miss Hickory replies that it was her understanding that birds built new nests in the spring. The birds admit that they usually do, but since she’s kept the place so tidy with her fastidious undiagnosed, obsessive compulsive disorder ways, they think they’ll take it back. Hickory humbly asks if perhaps she waited ’till after the new yuppie bird scum is born if she could have her nest back. “No! Go away!” she is told “I may raise a second family. Don’t dare to come up this tree again!”

Homeless again, her hard work null and void, head swimming in fear and humiliation, Miss Hickory, head bowed in shame, climbs awkwardly down the tree. In the process, her new garments are either tattered or forever lost. She has nothing. She is nothing. She has not seen that sly squirrel with the impulse control issues in a while, perhaps he has abandoned his hole and she can set up house in there?

Was it confusion or a secret appetite for self-destruction that led our Miss Hickory into that hole? It is pitch black inside. Nutshells litter the floor like broken skulls. She hears movement and discovers the cavern is very much occupied. The squirrel tells her that he is starving. She shakes her finger at him, and reprimands him for not better conserving his nuts. She calls him a wastrel and suggests that he should use his head. The topic of heads was the elephant in the cave. Squirrel explains that he has waited and spared her long enough…

He eats her head!

Crack! Crack! As he dines on her skull, her thoughts attack her for all her previous behavior. She thinks about what an asshole she’s been. Her brain calls her out on being such a fretting stick in the mud. It reminds her that for every good experience she’s had this past winter she had to be forced into them kicking and screaming. It tells her that her worst mistake was missing the ghost of baby Jesus in the barn on Christmas. It tells her she has no faith, and that all her good deeds were for her own vanity. It’s last words are to tell her she has lived a selfish life. Then the admonishing conscience goes forever silent, as the hickory nut skull has been completely consumed.

Headless Miss Hickory stumbles out of the hole and begins to climb back up the tree. The squirrel is mortified by his actions and vows to repent. The yuppie birds gasp and nearly go mad with horror at the sight of this headless abomination climbing toward them. Hickory keeps climbing; she pets one of the eggs and moves on. She realizes that if she still had a head it would be critiquing her every move but, since she doesn’t, she is now left to follow her simple feelings. She is lead to the very top of the tree, finds a small opening, shoves her neck into it, and her body becomes a branch. Later her long lost owner returns and recognizes her body as a strongly flourishing part of the tree. Miss Hickory, now an active part of nature, promises to produce an apple for the girl.

O.K., how effed up is that? I get that she’s one with nature and all, but at what torturous cost? I mean she was eaten alive for God sake, and I skipped over the whole baby deer’s mom is shot and the naked frog bit. This Newberry Award winning book was written in 1946, and let’s just say that I feel my haunting memory of it is completely justified. MISS HICKORY is one sick-ass twisted book, and I suggest you buy it for a kid you know today!

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15 years ago

Man, this sounds wild. I know what my kids are getting in the mail soon! 🙂

7 years ago

Me too! For years I wanted to remember this odd macabre book that I had checked out from my elementary school library. Finally I recalled the name and promptly purchased a first edition on ebay. This book and Eleanor Estes “The Witch Family” are my two favorite childhood books.

I love the modern twist you used in your review!