I’ve spent all but two years of my life in the Midwest. Surprisingly there ARE cities here–Chicago, St Louis, Kansas City come immediately to mind. My mind, though centers on the cornfields, bean fields, and now tobacco fields near my home. I can easily conjure the smells of a feedlot, chicken hatchery, fish farm pools, or a CAFO with little or no effort. I have followed directions given back in the pre-GPS days that go something like:
“Turn left at Price’s big machine shed and go straight till you get to the egg and produce stand at the old lady’s driveway. Turn right and go all the way to Yoder’s then hang a quick right at the tobacco barn-it’s about two miles more on your left.”
My childhood self was tortured with long boring stories of my Great Aunts and Great Uncles about the farms they grew up on. That same self was rewarded with a ride on a combine or playing tag in cornfields. Many of my high school classmates started their working lives detasseling corn or, where I live now, neighbors hoed or hung tobacco. Farming has an allure in this part of the country, but it is an edgy allure now remembering the foreclosures in the Great Depression and again in the 80s when John Mellencamp sang at Farm Aid.
In Southern Ohio, where I now live, the big tobacco settlement wasn’t good news. Tobacco is still a cash crop here. In my county, school closes for the County Fair each fall. 4-H Club membership is almost a right of passage. Kindergarteners are introduced to the Future Farmers of America with a field trip to the high school and a chance to climb on farm machinery. The antique farm equipment show is second only the County Fair in terms of revenue.
In the last week, a nameless politician made a farming comment so stupid, so out-of-touch that I won’t even repeat it. So, today I’m waxing nostalgic as a prelude to presenting some of the best (and, for balance, one of the worst) farm, farmer, or farming-themed books I’ve read. I culled them from my memory, from Goodreads and random lists found on the internet. I rejected some–My Antonia, for example, which I loved, but which I felt was more about coming-of-age, but was still on many lists. The wonderful All Creatures Great and Small stories of veterinarian James Herriot I also rejected. They were from the vet’s perspective, not the farmers. Missing, too, is George Orwell’s classic, Animal Farm, which while told as a farm story is really the story of totalitarianism. I may not be at all consistent in this applying criteria though. Now, here is my list:
A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley is a farm story married to Shakespeare. A retelling of King Lear, the book is set on a thousand-acre Iowa family farm. The three daughters and their father harbor secrets, animosities, and destinies like those in a Shakespearian tragedy. This book won the Pulitzer Prize. Today it requires a trigger warning due to sexual abuse. [I read this when it was released before there was the internet and blogging so I have not reviewed it].
This book had real promise–it started out great. I thought it was like Garrison Keillor’s fabled Lake Woebegone got real. Billed as a ‘Midwest Gothic’ of farm country life, it derailed with a completely horrific story of bullying and abusing a disabled girl. I’m including it because if you skip that chapter it is a good read. Farmer’s Almanac by Chris Fink.
The Care and Management of Lies by Jacqueline Winspear details the trouble a young farm wife, Kezia–a new bride as well, has in coping after her farmer-husband volunteers to fight in World War I. As the British Army takes the horses and an even greater amount of her farm produce, she comforts herself and her soldier-husband in letters filled with descriptions of wonderful meals. Her letters become favorites in her husband’s unit–even their Captain enjoys them. But war is war. The meals are fiction. The coping has to continue.
A Day No Pigs Would Die by Richard Newton Peck is a depressing look at a depressing life. When your Mom serves the nuts she took out of the stomach of a butchered squirrel, you know it’s hard times, right?
Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder is the story of Laura’s husband, Almonzo’s childhood in upstate New York. The son of a fairly well-off farmer, Almonzo and his siblings, help on the farm before moving west.
Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons—“They’re have been Starkadders at Cold Comfort….” “Robert Poste’s child,” Flore Poste arrives at Cold Comfort farm and begins to experience first-hand just how crazy a family can be. This is a comic novel that has well-stood the test of time. My full review is here.
I love, love, love ALL of John Goodall’s fabulous, wordless, Edwardian life picture books. The illustrations bring the world alive. I have most of the series. The Story of a Farm is just as lovely as those on upper-class life in the era.
See You in a Hundred Years by Logan Ward, his wife and a baby all ditch Manhattan for a farm as up-to-date as 1900. If it didn’t exist in 1900, they won’t use it. Any romantic notions you may have of “the olden days” can be erased with this book.
Our Homestead Story by Stephen Castleberry When a college business professor takes his large family off to a farm in Northern Wisconsin to lead a more self-sufficient life (one that its influenced by the same teachings followed by TV’s Duggar family of Counting On and the Bates family of Bringing Up Bates) the city slickers have a lot to learn from growing and butchering your own beef to remodeling the house and more. While I do not share their beliefs I did enjoy their story.
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. The best-selling author of Poisonwood Bible and other titles moved her family to an Appalachian farm to grow and enjoy seasonal foods. While I found her tone a tad preachy and was gob-smacked at her children agreeing to whole wheat pizza crust and apparently nothing but balsamic vinaigrette salad dressing, the life the chose to lead inspired me. Whether small scale farming or large-scale gardening, this book is a very modern look at small farm life without the struggles to pay the bills from what the farm earns.
I purchased a used copy of this amazing collection of farming photos while researching one of my manuscripts. It is fabulous. Farming Comes of Age.
My All-Time Favorite Farm Books
Ok, I cheated! Like Animal Farm, these books use a farm setting to tell the story of the power of Unions and Collective Bargaining! I loved Click, Clack Moo so much I bought it for every member of my family for Christmas the year it came out. My brother worked for a union at that time, so it was a huge hit. I still love these two books. There are more in the series, but these were the best.