The Excellent Lombards by Jane Hamilton
Growing up on a family apple orchard in Wisconsin, Mary Frances Lombard wants everything to stay the same. Her beloved father Jim and his cousin Sherwood will have big arguments twice a year, and their families will never get together at holidays. The scary Aunt May Hill will continue to fix the equipment and the hay will always get stacked in the barn before a storm comes. And most importantly, Mary Frances and her brother William, who loves video games and computers as well as harvesting apples, will run the orchard when they grow up. If her librarian mother makes her go to drama camp, she won’t speak to her, but will participate in the drill cart team. Mary Frances (or Frankie, Francie, Marlene, or M.F.) is quite dramatic enough without going to camp, especially when she competes with cousin Amanda in a geography bee. Readers of Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce mysteries will enjoy getting to know Mary Frances. I liked getting to know the eccentric members of the Lombard family, but I wanted to read about what happens next for Mary Frances and the orchard. I listened to the audiobook, and enjoyed the different voices Erin Cottrell used for each character.
At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier
I was looking forward to reading this book because my book groups have discussed two of Chevalier’s historical novels, The Last Runaway and Remarkable Creatures. Also, a family-run apple orchard sounded like a pleasant setting. Surprisingly, the orchard, on the edge of the Black Swamp in mid-19th century Ohio, is a dark and violent place. James Goodenough and his wife Sadie moved from Connecticut, where no land was available. To prove their homestead claim in Ohio, they need to raise 50 apple trees. They have several children, but life is hard, with bone-shaking fevers (malaria) every year. Growing apple trees on the edge of the swamp is challenging, especially with harsh winter weather. James loves the sweet apples from his grafted trees, but Sadie prefers the natural “spitters”, apples for hard cider and the applejack John Chapman introduces her to. Unfortunately, Sadie is a mean drunk, and the family suffers. Youngest son Robert, who’s fascinated by the trees, leaves and ends up in California during the gold rush. A grove of giant sequoias fascinates him and leads to a job. Robert’s sister Martha eventually joins him, and he learns the sad history of the family he left behind. The California setting is quite appealing and the novel is compelling reading, but this wasn’t the book I was hoping to read.
Early Warning by Jane Smiley
At 476 pages, Early Warning is not a quick read. It is the sequel to Some Luck, a family saga about an Iowa farm family. Early Warning covers the years 1953 to 1986, as the Langdon family expands into the next generation. I think the first book is better, but the many characters in Early Warning are interesting company and the author is an excellent storyteller. Dialogue is very well done, and the complex interactions of the extended family are believable. Plot is not the strong point here, as there is some predictability. Topics covered include the Cold War, the baby boom, psychoanalysis, stay at home mothers, Vietnam War, breast cancer, social change in the sixties, working for the CIA, pursuit of wealth, coming out, a drawn-out divorce, sibling rivalry, and changes on the family farm. As the Langdon children become middle-aged they become more introspective about their lives and their family. I definite recommend starting with Some Luck, and I’m looking forward to the last book in the trilogy, not yet written.
The Seasons on Henry’s Farm by Terra Brockman
If you’ve ever wondered what life is really like on a family farm, Terra Brockman’s book will give you a good idea. The Brockman family has farmed in central Illinois for most of the time since the 1880s. The fifth generation of Brockmans is growing up, helping on two of the extended family’s three sustainable farms. Terra lived in New York City and Japan for many years, but finally came back to write, and to work on brother Henry’s sustainable vegetable farm, among other pursuits. The days are long, but no one seems to work longer hours than Henry himself. His Japanese wife and three children, a longtime farmhand, a couple of apprentices and extended family plant, grow, harvest, and sell just about every vegetable imaginable. They use plastic hoop houses to extend the growing season, and Henry intensively tracks which varieties do best in which fields and what sells best. I enjoy shopping at farmer’s markets, and I wondered what happens to the leftover produce. Imperfect vegetables and fruit and leftovers go to feed the farmers, with much of it frozen for the winter. Although Henry’s detailed analysis of crops and sales probably doesn’t make for too many leftovers. I liked the arrangement of the book, starting with November, when garlic is planted by the thousands of cloves and moving through the months of the year until the end of harvest in late October. Terra won’t scare you away from farming or intensive gardening, but you will get a good sense of what it’s like to work in the intense cold or heat, and what the long hours feel like when you’re middle-aged. The children and animals on Henry’s farm provide some lighter moments, including Lucky Tom the turkey. More moving passages describe the declining health of Henry and Terra’s father and grandfather, and their father’s surgery and aftermath. I enjoyed the vivid descriptions of the farms at different seasons and times of day, learning about the politics of plastic bags and farmer’s markets, and especially the simple recipes and photos throughout the book.
Some Luck by Jane Smiley
Pulitzer prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley begins the Last Hundred Years trilogy with a novel about the Langdons, an Iowa farm family set during the years 1920 to 1953. Walter and Rosanna raise a large family near the farms of their parents, and cope with an amazing amount of change, from the coming of electricity to reluctantly replacing plow horses to a tractor, drought and financial worries during the Great Depression, watching a son go off to World War II, and more. The heart of the story is a scene where the extended family gathers for Thanksgiving dinner after the war. The novel is narrated in turns by most of the Langdons, but the characters are so memorable that the changing point of view enriches rather than confuses. Remarkably, the author can even capture the reader’s attention with the description of a day in the farmhouse from the viewpoint of a toddler. Smart, opportunistic Frank is the eldest and the one who will go off to war. Lillian makes an unexpected escape from the farm, while Joe never wants to leave. Of course, the Langdons experience moments of drama and tragedy, from Rosanna giving birth alone to a revival meeting, the state fair, and sudden death, but most of the scenes are about life on the farm. Readers will welcome Early Warning, the sequel, in May.
Home Grown by Ben Hewitt
I wasn’t sure if I was the right audience for this book, as I’m not contemplating homeschooling, or unschooling, children. But I still found it fascinating, as an account of a homesteading family, a unique look at parenting, and a chronicle of the life of a writer.
Ben and his wife Penny buy land in Vermont, surrounded by dairy farms, build a small cabin, later add a basement and an addition, and welcome two boys into their life. Ben writes magazine articles and non-fiction books, and the family runs a small farm. The boys are self-directed learners, not following a set curriculum, and are very creative and productive, more interested in exploring the woods, raising dairy goats, and learning wilderness skills than in sitting down and reading textbooks. Yes, the boys are learning basic academic skills including science and history, but only when it’s connected to one of their interests. Finn and Rye also have daily and weekly chores on the farm, weekly music lessons and occasional tutors to learn particular craft and wilderness skills. Since this book was published in early September and has been publicized on public radio and elsewhere, the Hewitts are getting many questions about how to encourage creativity in children and also comments criticizing the boys’ non-standardized education. This is an absorbing read in how some children learn when they are free to explore their interests. For more about the Hewitts, check out Ben’s blog.
Adventures in Yarn Farming by Barbara Parry
No, I don’t plan to raise sheep, dye wool, or harvest hay. But I really enjoyed reading about the seasons on a hillside fiber farm in western Massachusetts. Transitioning from a suburban house with 2 sheep to a large farm with dozens was far from easy, and Barbara and Mike are still learning what not to do after several years. One of their original ewes, Cocoa, is almost 17, and leads a pampered life. There are gorgeous photos throughout, of the seasons on the farm, the sheep, llamas and goats, and yarn. Some knitting patterns with photos are also included. I don’t knit, but they look enticing. Lots of planning and outside help are needed with shearing and harvesting hay. Lambing season is exhausting, though helped by a baby monitor and video feed of the barn on a screen in her fiber studio’s bedroom, 2 miles by road from their hilltop house. Working with small mills to process the fleeces into yarn is explained, and the time-consuming dyeing process is described. Annual trips to sheep and wool festivals and markets give Barbara a chance to see regular customers, and even to see her yarn turned into socks and sweaters. For more about Springdelle Farm, visit Barbara’s blog, sheepgal.com.