THE YEAR MONEY GREW ON TREES, by Aaron Hawkins. Haughton Mifflin, 2010, 293 pages. Reading/interest level: 4th-6th grade
My dad always said that his feet were the only stupid parts of his body. They had walked him into every bad decision he had ever made, so he had to watch them carefully. He repeated that little pearl of wisdom so often that I began to take it literally and stare at my feet when they were moving. I had my eyes on them the afternoon they walked me into my career in agriculture. I blame my feet because I was only thirteen at the time and not exactly in the job market.
Nothing much is going on in Jackson Jones’ little farm community in northern New Mexico. He himself has no goals or aims until the next-door-neighbor, elderly Mrs. Nelson, pulls him aside with a proposal to take over her late husbands hobby apple orchard of 300 trees. She’s doing this mostly to get back at her son, who won’t take on the orchard himself, and Jackson isn’t interested until his father wants to get him a summer job at the local scrap yard. Growing and picking apples looks a whole lot better than hauling scrap.
Secretly Jackson and Mrs. Nelson make their deal via formal contract: he’ll pay her $8000 of the year’s profit and keep the remainder–plus the orchard itself. Trouble is, he doesn’t know a thing about orchard cultivation, and the trees have several years of neglect on them. Where to start?
What follows is the remarkable but believable story of how Jackson, with his cousins and his sisters (none of whom know any more than he does) grow a crop of apples and sell them with profit. Jackson heads up the operation, getting his information first from a library book, then from more-or-less sympathetic adults. The most valuable of these turns out to be his Sunday school teacher, old Brother Brown, a notably taciturn individual. The kids prune, fertilize, irrigate, spray, thin, and finally harvest, with each step having its trials and satisfactions (except maybe the spraying, which is all trial). Finally, the reward–except Jackson hasn’t told anybody about his deal with Mrs. Nelson and the parsimonious old lady is hinting that she won’t honor it.
The narrative is not “exciting,” in that there are no hairbreadth escapes or life-threatening situations. But at any stage the crop could fail, and success is no more precarious than when it’s literally within reach, at harvest time. Jackson succeeds because he doesn’t have to pay his workers (that’s the value of family), help always comes just when he needs it, and the weather cooperates with his fervent prayers. As the summer progresses each member of the team becomes personally invested, and the payoff is a lot more than money–which Mrs. Nelson gets most of anyway.
It adds up to a great story, with well-developed characters and a solid theme: enterprise, initiative, follow-through, hard work, risk and reward. And by the way, the setting is 1982, when presumably parents and governments were not as (overly) protective as they are now. Jackson’s parents, aunt, and uncle are hands-off to a fault–letting my kids spray an orchard with Diazinon by themselves would certainly give me pause. On the other hand, watching them maintain and drive a tractor by themselves would win my applause.
Questions to talk about:
- What do you think you would enjoy most about apple cultivation? What least?
- Which of Jackson’s relatives were the most helpful to him, and why?
- How is Jackson a good manager of his apple business? Name three specific examples.
- What is “delayed gratification”? How does it relate to this story?