Day 1052: A Farm Dies Once a Year

Cover for A Farm Dies Once a YearA Farm Dies Once a Year is Arlo Crawford’s memoir of growing up on his parents’ organic vegetable farm in Pennsylvania. It focuses particularly on a summer and fall when Crawford returned to the farm as an adult.

Crawford had been living in New York and then Cambridge, Massachusetts, for years before he decided to return home to the farm for a few months before relocating with his girlfriend, Sarah, to San Francisco. Although he was never interested in farming, he found himself at a loss for what he wanted to do with his life.

In between descriptions of hard work and uncertainty on the farm and his father’s worry and fits of anger, Crawford tells the story of his parents’ decision to become farmers. He talks about the first years of difficult life in Appalachian Pennsylvania, his boyhood on the farm, and significant episodes, particularly the senseless murder of a family friend and neighbor when Arlo was 12.

This is a well-written account, evoking both the beauty of the countryside and the sheer hard work of farming a large operation and marketing the produce. It reflects Crawford’s ambivalent attitude toward his home and his parents’ legacy. I enjoyed it very much.

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The Rural Life

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Day 406: Annals of the Former World: In Suspect Terrain

Cover for Annals of the Former WorldIn the second book of Annals of the Former World, John McPhee returns east to examine the geology of the Appalachians along I-80. Beginning with the Delaware Water Gap, he travels along the highway with geologist Anita Harris exploring the road cuts to see what can be determined about how the landscape developed. The two continue on this route through Pennsylvania and into Ohio, where they explore Kelley’s Island, travel along the Cuyahoga River for a spell, and end at the Indiana Dunes.

Having explained the basics of plate tectonics in Basin and Range, McPhee now travels with a geologist who is skeptical of the broad application the theory has found, particularly in relation to the Appalachians. Harris takes issue with the idea that the mountains were formed by the ramming of the African coast up against North America. She believes that a study of the rocks does not support this concept.

In Suspect Terrain is deeply concerned with glaciation. As well as explaining how glaciers could have formed this area of folded and complex geology, McPhee breaks off to expatiate on how the theory of the Ice Age came about, among other geological ideas. He also tells how Harris herself figured out how to use the color of conodonts, a kind of fossil, to make it easier to find the conditions for oil.

I find it fascinating to try to imagine the pictures of the earth that McPhee describes, how different they are from the continent as it is today. McPhee tells us how rivers ran to the west instead of to the east, huge tropical seas took up the middle of the continent, the glaciers shoved rock down from Canada to create places like Staten Island.

McPhee is an extremely interesting writer. To be sure, the subject matter, the ideas it evokes, and the language he uses demand full attention, but this series of books is involving.

Day 264: The Ballad of Tom Dooley

Cover for The Ballad of Tom DooleySharyn McCrumb has written several series of light mysteries, some better than others. I have usually enjoyed her “ballad” series–atmospheric, sometimes ghostly mysteries set in Appalachia and each named after a traditional folk ballad. The Ballad of Tom Dooley, despite a background of historical research (because this folk ballad is based on a true case), is not her best, however.

According to McCrumb’s notes at the end of the novel, she got interested in the story after researching it for an article and decided that the prevailing theories of the crime are not satisfying. So, she reconstructed her theory of the crime in this book. As such, it is not so much a mystery as an explication.

Most people vaguely know the story, that Tom Dooley (actually Dula) met Laura Foster “on the mountain/stabbed her with [his] knife.” Another defendant, Ann Melton, was let go. But McCrumb says most people in Wilkes County, where the crime occurred, will tell you Ann did it. To McCrumb, knowing that Ann was Tom’s long-time married lover, Tom being guilty didn’t make sense.

The novel is narrated by two characters who were actually involved in the incident: Pauline Foster, who was Ann Melton’s cousin and servant girl; and Zebulon Vance, the ex-governor and senator of pre-Civil War North Carolina who defended Tom. Pauline is an interesting character–McCrumb depicts her as a sociopath who manipulates the others and wants revenge for Ann’s slights.

The biggest fault in the novel is the narration of Zebulon Vance. At first, I thought McCrumb’s intent was to depict him as a maundering old bore, possibly even senile, as his section is so repetitive and adds so little to the narrative. It is mostly about himself and has little to do with the story. But then I read that Vance’s career was one reason McCrumb wanted to do the story. Instead of adding to it, it detracts from and drags against the impetus of the plot.

The fact is that none of the characters are likable people, and the crime isn’t particularly interesting. From the author of some haunting stories, this novel is a disappointment. If McCrumb wanted to write about Vance, she may have done better to write a biography.