Stepping on the Cracks

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by Mary Downing Hahn. Novel. 224 pages. Grades 4-7.
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Review

cover art

It's 1944 and World War II is raging. On the homefront in the US Margaret and Elizabeth are next-door neighbors and best friends with vastly different personalities. Both are harassed by the school bully. Both have brothers who are fighting overseas and they, like the rest of their families, are worried about them. Each, at the beginning of the book, is convinced that the war is necessary and a little bit glamorous.

When they are confronted with a sick deserter hiding out in the woods, they are, at first, horrified and convinced that he is a traitor. Soon their sympathy overrides their distaste and they end up getting help for him. Gradually the girls become aware that there are some people whose ethics are violated by any kind of warfare, no matter how just the cause may seem.

The deserter's stance against war is not simplistically portrayed and there is much food for thought in this book&emdash;ethics, cowardice, patriotism.

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Things to Talk About and Notice

  • A look at Hahn's considerable skills as a writer is a good discussion topic for this book. She manages to portray an era, deal with and debate the concept of pacifism while still giving us the believable characters of Elizabeth and Margaret. How she does that through the details and descriptions she includes is a study in writing.

  • Why did people hang blue and gold stars in the windows of homes where family members were in the service or had been killed in the war?

  • Notice the clothing styles the author mentions. Look at some photographs of people at that time. Do you like the look?

  • Talk about the role the radio played in people’s lives then.

  • What are the reasons for Gordy's anger and fears? Do you blame him?

  • Look at the role of the teacher. Why didn’t they ask her for help? What might she have done?

  • Notice the way each adult in the book handles his or her concerns about the war.

  • What do you think of the attitude of the people who knew Mr. Smith was abusing his family? Would people today be apt to have the same attitudes toward family violence?

  • Gordy frightens the girls by telling them there is a crazy man in the woods. Is he telling the truth?
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Activities

  • The pacifism portrayed in the book can be the focus for a debate.

  • On a lighter level, life in small town Maryland during World War II is carefully depicted in Hahn's book. The toys and pastimes of the era and the effect of rationing and shortages as well as the patriotism of the time are strong parts of the book. Students might like to investigate any of these things more carefully.

  • Make a map of your neighborhood like the one of Margaret’s in the front of the book.

  • Mark the places on your map where someone could be hidden for a few days without anyone finding him or her.

  • Find out as much as you can about each radio program that is mentioned in the book.

  • Compare Gordy to other bullies such as the ones in Spinelli's Maniac Magee and Warnock’s The Night the Bells Rang.

  • Find out about the number of deserters in various wars. What were the punishments.

  • Role play a meeting of Elizabeth and Margaret years later with grown sons of their own. What will they advise their sons to do in the event of war? What would you do?

  • Compare this book to books about families in other wars. What is similar and what is different about their actions and feelings?
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Related Books

  • Students might like to read Charley Skedaddle by Beatty or Shades of Gray by Caroline Reeder as well as Avi's Fighting Ground to get some idea and perspective on arguments for and against pacifism as experienced in other wars.

  • Hahn, Mary Downing Following My Own Footsteps Clarion, 1996 ISBN 0 395 76477 7
    In this sequel to Stepping on the Cracks, Hahn explores one dysfunctional and abusive family. The eldest son is in jail for desertion. With his absence, the rest of the family is even more vulnerable to their abusive father. Grandmother provides refuge and solace for some, but her own daughter is beyond her help.

  • Avi Who Was That Masked Man Anyway? (Orchard, 1992 ISBN 0531054578)
    Real life is less than satisfying for Frankie Wattleson. His brother came back from the war wounded and depressed. A mysterious lodger has rented Frankie's room. His only refuge is listening to the radio and escaping into the adventures of Captain Midnight, The Lone Ranger and Superman. He and his best friend, Mario, spy on the lodger, convinced that he is either an evil scientist or a spy. The entire plot is relayed in dialogue only, making this an ideal book for reader’s theater.

  • Giff, Patricia Reilly Lily's Crossing (Yearling, 1999 ISBN 0440414539)
    Lily has been going to Rockaway Beach every summer for as long as she can remember. This summer promises to be as good as ever until her father announces that he is going off to war. Her best friend is moving away so that her father can find work in a defense plant. Lily is stuck with no one at the beach but Gram. Lily is so furious at what she considers her father's betrayal that she refuses to bid him goodbye. She and Albert, a refugee boy, are forced into a sort of friendship and Lily lies to him. Albert's belief in those lies nearly causes his death.

  • Kinsey-Warnock, Natalie The Night the Bells Rang (Puffin, 2000 ISBN 0141309865)
    In this small but very nice novel, we see life in rural Vermont while World War I rages in Europe. In spite of its isolation, the family is touched by the war. The school bully, Aden Cutler, torments Mason, who wishes him dead. Later, Aden performs an act of heroism that only Mason sees and tells no one about. When Aden is killed in the battle of Argonne Forest, Mason is the only one with a kind thought for him. After the bells ring out to celebrate the end of the war, Mason comforts Mrs. Cutler.

  • Lowry, Lois Autumn Street (Yearling, 1986 ISBN 0440403448)
    Elizabeth is a kindergartner when Pearl Harbor is bombed. Her father goes to war, and she and her family move to her grandparents' home in Pennsylvania. Here Elizabeth struggles to make sense of the world around her in a well-to-do home with servants. Elizabeth's tragic experiences at home contrast with her father's experiences in the war. We get a glimpse of life on the home front during the war, mostly a world without men. The racism is readily apparent.

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