HOME IN THE WOODS
Written and illustrated by Eliza Wheeler
(Nancy Paulsen Books; $17.99, Ages 5-8)
★Starred Reviews – Booklist, Horn Book, Kirkus
“This book is inspired not only by the stories from [my grandmother],” says Wheeler, “but by the entire generation that experienced the Great Depression. They will soon be gone, and if we haven’t yet collected their stories, the time is now.”
Home in the Woods, the latest picture book by Eliza Wheeler is a treat for the eyes and soul. The embossed title on the book jacket is gorgeous as is the winter scape underneath. The water color and ink artwork is simply stunning.
Travel back in time as this compelling story, based on Wheeler’s grandmother’s life in the Wisconsin woods during the Great Depression, pulls readers right into each meticulously and movingly illustrated page.
Told from the perspective of Wheeler’s grandmother, Marvel, Home in the Woods introduces readers to the six-year-old and her seven siblings along with Mum, a newly widowed and stoic 34-year-old. This 40-page book unfolds over four seasons beginning in Summer when the time is ideal to move into an abandoned tar-paper shack they find in the woods. “You never know what treasures we’ll find,” says Mum. While Marvel doesn’t believe the rundown hut can ever be a treasure let alone a home, she carries on nonetheless relying on the closeness of her family and her mother’s optimism. That energy is conveyed in scenes like the one where seven of the siblings (the youngest, at 3- months-old, is at home with Mum) happily collect berries. Wheeler subtly shows how nature plays an important role in both the family’s struggle and survival.
The blue tones of Summer shift when Autumn arrives and “rust and ruby leaves” provide a beautiful backdrop for this season’s art. Everyone in the family pitches in whether it’s splitting wood to heat the shack or pulling weeds and picking “veggies.” As baby Eva munches a carrot, Mum cooks preserves and the children prepare for winter by stocking up the cellar with whatever they were able to harvest.
On a visit to Bennett’s General Store, the siblings look longingly at the inviting shop window, but they have learned how to do without. They can only afford to “buy some basics.” Cleverly, the kids have invented a game they’ve dubbed General Store that keeps them entertained for hours. Beside the hut, Marvel displays “mud sweets,” little Lowell is the jeweler, older sister Bea sells fine hats (note the creativity of the hats Mum is admiring), and the others all find fulfilling counters to man.
When Winter’s bitter winds blow, the family huddles by the pot-belly stove as the two oldest boys “trek out to hunt for food.” Blue tones return, but the flames of the fire, the glowing lantern, the gold in the children’s crowns, and in the patchwork pieces as Mum teaches Bea to quilt all depict a warmth that is the fabric of this loving family. Marvel shares how her brother Rich teaches her to read in another touching illustration that is rich with contentment.
The illustration above clues readers into Mum’s silent fears for her family while the words, “But Mum stays awake into the night …” tell us what we’ve guessed all along. Living in the woods, barely eking out a living, and supporting her family of nine has taken its toll on this strong woman. Mum prays for her children to get safely through winter and the Depression.
The cycle of seasons culminates in Spring. “The cottonwoods are all in bloom” and a spirit of rebirth and renewal fills everyone’s hearts just as the family’s pail is filled with fresh milk at Erickson’s Farm. The children rejoice in the thrilling sound of birdsong and the blossoming of flowers. Enveloped by hope, the family has gotten through the harsh Wisconsin winter and emerged to find that the power of togetherness, teamwork and love has brought to them the promise of better days ahead and the true meaning of home.
- Reviewed by Ronna Mandel