"The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill" by Megan Frazer Blakemore is set during the Cold War when the McCarthy hunt for Communists was at its peak. It's not a setting that's used much in middle grade fiction, and Blakemore does an excellent job of showing readers what life was like at that time and what the witch hunts were.
The protagonist, a spunky girl named Hazel, is bereft because her best (and only) friend moved away. When a new boy moves into her small town, they end up becoming friends. Hazel is an avid Nancy Drew fan, and she aspires to solve mysteries just like Nancy Drew does.
When a new employee at her parent's business (running the local graveyard) seems suspicious, Hazel decides to investigate. She is sure the gravedigger is a Communist, in town to pass secrets from the local factory to the Russians. She draws Samuel, her new friend, into her investigation.
Samuel is reluctant, but he is also the voice of reason. Hazel doesn't just jump to conclusions -- she leaps to them. Samuel points out the cold truth -- she is making conclusions based on nothing more than feelings and intuition. Not facts.
The story is told in third person narrative, but Blakemore does a superb job of using it to show Hazel's feelings and thoughts.
Many readers will sympathize with Hazel when she is subjected to a bit of bullying by the two popular, mean girls. They will understand her doubts and insecurities about doing new things and making new friends. They will also root her on when she uses the information she has discovered during her investigations to help others in her town.
While the cover unfortunately may not appeal to middle grade readers, the story will. Hazel is a great character -- perfect in all her many flaws. At heart, she does the right thing, and her motives are pure -- mostly.
Teachers will like this story because it incorporates history from a time not covered by many fiction books. They will also be able to use it as an example of the detective or mystery genre. Or perhaps even as a "how not to solve a mystery" book.
Please note: This review is based on the advance reader's copy provided by the publisher, Bloomsbury Children's Books, for review purposes.
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