81 pages 2 hours read

Mary Downing Hahn

Stepping on the Cracks

Fiction | Novel | YA | Published in 1991

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Summary and Study Guide


Shy, 12-year-old Margaret and her high-spirited friend Elizabeth question their beliefs about WWII when they discover that the brother of their school nemesis is a deserter in Mary Downing Hahn’s middle grade historical fiction novel, Stepping on the Cracks (1991). The novel explores themes of moral ambiguity, war, friendship, and domestic abuse, drawing on Hahn’s childhood memories of growing up in College Park, Maryland. In a short biography at the end of the novel Hahn describes having “vivid recollection[s] of the forties” (217). She was seven years old when WWII ended. Hahn dedicates the novel in part to her favorite uncle, who was killed in Belgium in 1944, and to a second uncle who survived the Battle of the Bulge.

Stepping on the Cracks received a starred review from School Library Journal and won the 1992 Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction. The novel was also a Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children’s Book Award Nominee in 1993. This guide references instances of domestic/child abuse. Pagination in this guide refers to the 2009 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt edition.

Plot Summary

In August of 1944, Margaret Baker enjoys the last days of summer before starting sixth grade. She and her best friend, Elizabeth Crawford, live in College Hill, Maryland; both have older brothers serving overseas in World War II. Other than rationing and the absence of young men, the war has not greatly affected the girls. Occasionally a blue star hanging in someone’s window changes to gold, signifying that a family member died serving their country. The girls worry about their brothers, but the war seems distant and unreal. Margaret’s brother Jimmy, her childhood protector, sends her cheerful letters that make Margaret think the war is not so bad. Margaret’s parents, however, worry constantly about Jimmy and are preoccupied and short-tempered.

Margaret knows she is a “scaredy-cat” compared to Elizabeth, who is bold and brave. Elizabeth dominates their friendship, goading and guilting “sissy” Margaret into schemes Margaret would never initiate on her own. Both girls wholeheartedly support the war because they know, like everyone does, that they are in the right: The Allies are the good guys, and Hitler must be stopped at all costs.

The girls have an enemy closer to home in Gordy Smith, the class bully. Gordy is mean and physically aggressive. He and his family are the neighborhood pariahs. Mr. Smith drinks heavily and physically abuses his wife and kids while the town looks the other way. Gordy and his two pals, Toad and Doug, insult the girls and break up their treehouse. Enraged, Elizabeth persuades Margaret to follow the boys to their ramshackle hut in the woods. Gordy tries to frighten them away with a story of a “crazy” man. While Margaret is terrified, Elizabeth is undaunted. The girls discover that Gordy is hiding his older brother Stuart, who deserted from the Army while home on furlough. Stuart is a pacifist who believes war is morally wrong. He is also in bad health.

Initially the girls are outraged that while their brothers are doing their duty, Stuart gets to stay home. Elizabeth blackmails Gordy to stop him from bullying them. Margaret, however, has doubts. She wonders what Jimmy really thinks of the war and whether it is as righteous as she believes. Elizabeth also has a change of heart, and the two girls covertly help Gordy care for Stuart when his illness worsens. As she gets to know Stuart and learns more about his unique brand of courage, Margaret questions her own beliefs.

Margaret also learns more about Gordy as she witnesses the abuse in his family. When Margaret’s mother declares that she can do nothing about the situation, Margaret is shocked. Margaret’s family learns that Jimmy was killed in the Battle of the Bulge, and the blue star in their window changes to gold.

Aided by the young war widow Barbara, Stuart’s friend since grade school, the girls and Gordy secretly get Stuart to a doctor and help him recuperate in Barbara’s family home. When Stuart learns his father is again beating his family, Stuart comes out of hiding to reason with his father. Mr. Smith beats Stuart nearly to death. Stuart’s intervention, however, protects Gordy and the rest of the family. Mr. Smith is arrested, and Gordy, his mom, and his siblings move out of state. Stuart, badly injured, recovers in an Army hospital.

To Margaret’s shock, her mother reacts furiously when she discovers Margaret helped Stuart. Her mother believes that while Jimmy died a hero for his country, Stuart is a reprehensible coward. Margaret knows the situation is more nuanced, but the two cannot agree.

Spring arrives and the girls, still firm friends, miss Gordy. Barbara believes the Army will be lenient with Stuart, and announces, to the girls’ delight, that Stuart has asked her to marry him.

A companion novel, Following My Own Footsteps (1996), focuses on Gordy’s new life in North Carolina, and a sequel, As Ever, Gordy (2011), follows Gordy and Stuart’s return to College Hill.