If you recognize that quote,* you might have a somewhat warped idea of what living on a farm is all about. It’s the first day of the Minnesota State Fair, which lasts for 12 days, and began 147 years ago as an homage to farming and all the ways we depend on The Land.
In fact, the fairgrounds are adjacent to the University of Minnesota’s “Cow College,” the St. Paul campus where agriculture, horticulture, home economics, and veterinary sciences have been taught for decades and decades. It’s a “land grant” university: “The mission of these institutions as set forth in the 1862 Act is to focus on the teaching of practical agriculture, science and engineering (though “without excluding … classical studies”), as a response to the industrial revolution and changing social class. This mission was in contrast to the historic practice of higher education to focus on an abstract Liberal Arts curriculum. Ultimately, most land-grant colleges became large public universities that today offer a full spectrum of educational opportunities.” (Wikipedia)
There was a time in this fair land when everyone knew how fervently we depend on farms for healthy eating and sound land use practices. Now? Not so much.
Is it any wonder, then, that books for children and teens set on farms are infrequently published? Everyone in the Midwest moans about this. Reading about snippy society girls in New York is a form of fantasy for most of the country, but farms are nearly everywhere else. Keeping the children who live on them visible and respected, offering life on the farm as an intriguing aspiration … well, children’s book publishing doesn’t do such a good job of that.
Here are a few books for older readers to extend the article I wrote on farms about this time last year. As you’re eating fresh tomatoes and cucumbers, buttering sweet corn, and chomping into a piece of whole wheat bread, I hope one part of your brain is saying thank you to the farmers who brought you that food.
Barn Boot Blues by Catherine Friend (Marshall Cavendish), available after October 1st. Taylor McNamara is twelve. Her parents have done the unthinkable. They’ve moved from the big city to a sheep farm “in the middle of nowhere.” Taylor not only loses her friends, the mall, and all pastimes associated with the city, but she has sheep gunk on her shoes. At school, Taylor feels embarrassed by her new life. Not knowing how to balance her new farm duties with her social life causes consternation. Her previously cool parents are either a) not home—her Dad or b) buried under farmwork—her Mom. Their previously close family is torn to pieces, all because her mother had a dream of farming. A new friend teaches Taylor to weave sheep’s wool and gives a lifelong perspective on farming. But it’s the miracle of birth—in the barn—that helps Taylor understand how life on a farm could be amazing.
Heart of a Shepherd by Rosanne Parry (Random House) came out in 2009. If you haven’t read it yet, you’re missing one of the best pieces of literature published in recent years. Written in achingly beautiful prose, the book evokes the wide and heart-filling skies of eastern Oregon as much as it does the close, and often anxiety-laden, life on the family ranch. Brother, at age eleven, is the youngest of five boys in a family that not only farms but serves in the military with honor. With many layers and textures, Heart of a Shepherd is aptly named because it also delves into the spiritual growth of Brother, who has been raised in a Catholic household. When Brother’s father is called away to serve in Iraq, tension escalates on their farm. Brother must help his grandparents work the ranch because crops and livestock don’t get put aside when your country calls. It’s Brother’s grandfather who provides the touchstone in this book. Brother looks all around for answers to the big-as-the-Oregon-sky questions he has. An avowed and respected Quaker, Grandfather talks with Brother about war and belief and life. The new circuit priest provides direction and so does a shepherd working on their farm. It all works seamlessly into a story that will work for readers on different levels. There’s plenty of action, lots of tension, and a satisfying amount of inner reflection. When you finish this book, you’ll feel as though you’ve lived for awhile on this ranch in Oregon, talking things over with Brother.
And Now, Miguel by Joseph Krumgold (HarperCollins) was first published in 1954. Set in the Sangre de Cristos Mountains at the southernmost tip of the Rockies, Miguel lives with his family on a ranch in northern New Mexico. They are sheep ranchers on a large scale. Miguel wants more than anything to be allowed to accompany the men into the mountains when they take the sheep to higher grazing pastures in the summer. His father considers Miguel to be too young and every scheme Miguel concocts seems to bear out his opinion. When Miguel prays to God that he be allowed to go, it seems his prayer is answered by his favorite older brother being drafted. Miguel’s guilt is palpable. This is a book from a different time, with a different pacing, but it’s still an engrossing read. As a side note, at the time, the New York Herald Tribune reviewer said of Jean Charlot’s illustrations for this book: “Fully half of our pleasure in the book lay in the superb Charlot drawings.” In fact, Peter Morse in his book about Jean Charlot called him “the greatest artist ever to devote himself regularly to the field of children’s books.”
Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson (Random House). This book appeals on many levels. It’s about a 16-year-old girl who lives in already-settled Iowa in 1918, packing up and moving to Montana to homestead her deceased uncle’s claim. Based on Ms. Larson’s own grandmother’s experience and supplemented by a great deal of research, we experience a life-threatening winter, isolated loneliness, and the sense of dependent community that pervades farm life. The first World War has its own effect on this book as Hattie’s new friends are of German descent and thus vilified for their nationality. Hattie Big Sky won a well-deserved Newbery Honor.
Ten Miles Past Normal by Frances O’Roark Dowell (Atheneum). A very recent book, this one is set on the goat farm to which 14-year-old Janie Gorman’s family has recently moved. Kari Baumbach recommended this book on the CLN website. Read her full review, in which she states “This is a story of personal growth, individuality, friendship, and family as Janie moves past wanting to be normal and invisible to moving into her own individuality where life opens up and she sees the possibility of living large and making a difference.” It’s tough wanting to be normal when you’re anything but. Thank goodness for another strong female character courtesy of Ms. Dowell’s imagination.
Dairy Queen by Catherine Gilbert Murdock (Graphia) and its sequels, The Off Season and Front and Center, are set on a dairy farm in northern Wisconsin. With a humorous narrative, D.J. Schwenck recounts the summer of her 15th year, when her farmer father is injured, her two older brothers are away at college, and her mom has to work a lot, leaving D.J. to run the farm on her own. She’s a very athletic girl with a strong history of being in shape, but I still consider this a farming fantasy. That’s okay, because it makes for a very good story, but having worked on farms, it’s not believable to me that D.J. could handle the operation and daily work on the farm while training to be a football player and training a hunky football player and finding time to worry about how little her family communicates. So I happily regard these as romantic farming fantasies with a strong football undercurrent. D.J.’s voice is one the reader cares about and eagerly awaits what happens next.
* The quote in the first line is from the theme song to the 1960s TV show, Green Acres. The show was corny, but the theme song really stuck in people’s minds.