For our farm family with school children and cows, winter holds few respites from being busy, but when they happen, we do know how to handle it.
Some of us prefer World War II — fiction for one, personal histories for another. We’ve got one who’s into stereotypical Westerns and another who’s deep in the heart of the Nancy Drew mysteries that have enthralled three or four generations so far. Several of us love Guinness World Records; any year will do.
Any time a picture book is read aloud, an audience of at least two gathers. That’s pretty rewarding for the reader, honestly — even for people like me who don’t really love reading aloud.
And me — I’ve got ag reading recommendations to offer.
The first is an April 2020 book titled “American Harvest: God, Country, and Farming in the Heartland.”
Author Marie Mutsuki Mockett traveled with a custom harvest crew for the 2017 wheat run with an eye to investigating and, to some degree, reconciling the contrast between her life as an urban resident of New York and California with her position as an inheritor of a farm in the rural central part of the United States.
This was a Nebraska OverDrive Libraries recommendation, and I started it with a skeptical attitude and only because I thought I should review it for a publication I edit — a magazine called Harvest News which serves as the newsletter for the trade association U.S. Custom Harvesters, Inc.
Initially, I was very annoyed by a vaguely supercilious tone, but even after the ebook loan expired and returned itself to the collection — twice — I managed to borrow it again and stick with it to the end, and I’m glad I did.
Mockett thoroughly visits topics that tend to divide along rural/urban and producer/consumer lines. The biggest of these are the production of GMO crops and use of herbicides and the resistance to these methods by urban consumers; and the evangelical Christian tradition and secular, cosmopolitan culture.
Mockett’s family is the longtime owner of a Nebraska Panhandle farm, and the wheat raised there has been harvested by custom harvester Eric Wolgemuth for decades.
The Wolgemuth Brothers crew — as the name indicates, made up mainly of family members — is from the Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, area, and members are of the Amish, Mennonite and other Anabaptist traditions. Mockett’s family, which includes her mother’s Japanese heritage, is nonreligious.
The generations-long Mockett and Wolgemuth family friendship bridges all the gaps between the coasts and the plains. Traveling with the harvest crew was Eric Wolgemuth’s solution to Marie Mockett’s need to satisfy her curiosity.
Readers with a background in harvesting will recognize industry names, places and events that add genuine detail in the overall story. Along the same lines, people who are familiar with Kimball, Nebraska, where the Mockett family farm is, will immediately recognize Mockett’s grandmother’s former home by its description.
Mockett describes feeling like an outsider in a ream of ways, and Plains-based readers might find themselves uncomfortable recognizing that “insert-your-state-here nice” doesn’t always ring true.
And, Mockett’s summer on harvest coincided with a year when the crew members didn’t always get along with each other. That’s an unfortunate circumstance that can happen to any crew; it’s easy for a reader to see how this was borderline excruciating for an observant author.
In spite of everything awkward and unfamiliar, though, Mockett remains inquisitive and conveys receptiveness and openness throughout the book, and aside from my feeling of obligation, this attitude is what kept me in the book to the end.
The book from Graywolf Press is 381 pages plus acknowledgments and bibliography. It is available through Kearney Public Library in hard copy as well as ePub.
Our household owns a couple thousand picture books, and a handful of these rise to keepsake level for me. Among them are “If you’re not from the prairie …” by David Bouchard, illustrated by Henry Ripplinger, and “Dandelions” by the inimitable Eve Bunting, illustrated by Greg Shed.
I love the Plains, and I love books in which the setting is as much a character as the characters are, and both of these books fulfill these joys.
The Bouchard book is modern but timeless and takes place more or less in Saskatchewan, but it could be any prairie.
The Bunting book takes place during Westward Expansion in Nebraska, though, again, it could take place on any prairie. Among its features: An author dedication to the late James Potter of the Nebraska State Historical Society — brother of the Hub’s Lori Potter.
Let me know if you read any of these, and tell me what you think.
This Soils and Streams column first appeared in the Feb. 12, 2021, issue of the Kearney Hub.