Mary Downing Hahn

Stepping on the Cracks

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Stepping on the Cracks Summary

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Mary Downing Hahn’s Stepping on the Cracks is a young adult novel that tells the fictional story of two 6th-grade girls living in College Hill, U.S.A. Published in 1991 and set during WWII, Hahn tackles a lot of the complex emotions surrounding the war. She passes no judgement on human behavior during wartime, but instead attempts to shed light on the intricate belief systems children and adults had during this time. What results is a thought-provoking novel that is engaging for young adults and adults alike.

Stepping on the Cracks begins with Margaret and Elizabeth (our protagonists) playing a game of Monopoly. Their tone is playful; they’re children enjoying a hot summers day. Slowly, Hahn introduces the impact of WWII in the story, how both Margaret and Elizabeth’s brothers are fighting “a war Hitler started,” and how Margaret’s neighbors, the Bedfords, have lost their son, Harold, in the war. Even though these children frolic and play the way children are apt to do, they have an awareness of how much pain the war has caused. The intricacies may be lost on them, but they know to hate Hitler and his Nazis because they’re the cause of pain in their parents, the death in their community, and general suffering and anxiety. With a war as impactful as WWII, the tension is palpable even to a child.

Not too far into the novel we’re introduced to Gordon Smith (known as Gordy). He’s a school bully and all-around troublemaker. The girls don’t know much about his homelife. He has a brother named Donald who serves in the army, and his father has been arrested numerous times for drunk and disorderly conduct. Even though Gordy torments the young girls, it’s clear that his story is more complicated than it seems. And this seems to be a recurrent theme: a person’s actions are rarely black and white, there’s a complexity behind all human experience.

As the novel continues, we learn more about Gordy’s life. His father is physically abusive to his family, and Gordy has a brother named Stuart who fled from his military duties and is in hiding. The girls, Margaret and Elizabeth, stumble upon Stuart while following Gordy to his “secret hiding place.” Stuart’s been hiding in the woods outside of College Hill, and when the girls find him they learn that he’s deserted his military post and they think that makes him a traitor. They intend to use their knowledge as a way to blackmail Gordy into being kinder to them. But the more they engage with Stuart the more they learn about his conscientious objection and come to the conclusion that involvement in the war isn’t as clear cut as they previously thought.

Stuart falls ill with pneumonia and the three children, Margaret, Elizabeth, and Gordy (now working together), do their very best to restore him to good health. Unfortunately, his condition becomes more severe and it becomes apparent that his presence must be made known to the townspeople if he’s to survive and receive necessary medical assistance. Once the town knows of his desertion, Stuart has no choice other than to confront his family. He wants to address his desertion and his father’s physical assault of his family. As you may imagine, Mr. Smith is not receptive to any of this and beats Stuart until he nearly dies.

The Smith family knows they have no choice but to make a change. So, Mr. Smith takes a job in California, but the rest of the family resolves to move to North Carolina (to rid themselves of his torment). Stuart stays in College Hill and marries a widow in the town named Barbara, a woman who was crucial in guiding the children’s thoughts surrounding the war. Margaret discovers that her brother, Jimmy, has died in the war and Elizabeth’s brother lives.

Stepping on the Cracks is a complex and intense novel. In spite of its audience, the themes it tackles (such as physical abuse and war) are far from children’s topics. However, using children’s perspectives, Hahn successfully shows how deeply affected the United States was by the war. Not only has it impacted the world of children, it created this split mentality of support and opposition. A deserter must be seen as a traitor, even though that is not always the case. Propaganda was rampant, and through the evolution of Margaret and Elizabeth, we see how things are not so black and white. Patriotism doesn’t necessitate virtuosity. On the second page of the novel Hahn thoughtfully summarizes how affected children are by the war. Margaret and Elizabeth are playing “step on a crack…Break Hitler’s back” and Margaret’s mother objects, saying that when she was a child, you were supposed to avoid the cracks, so you wouldn’t break your mother’s back. Elizabeth responds, saying, “that was before Hitler…The world was different then.” When faced with the atrocities of war, these children had no choice but to face the intricacies of humanity.