Wednesday, July 29, 2009
The Beef Princess of Practical County Brings Back Memories
I grew up in an agricultural county and even though I was a "townie" I was still active in 4H completing woodworking, photography, electrical and cooking projects. I even won an outstanding rating for my snickerdoodles one year. My mom served as the assistant 4H agent in Ashland County and ran the Junior Fair for several years. Needless to say I was very involved, serving on the Junior Fair Board for a number of years and practically living at the county fair for one week each year. I told someone on the bus to Boston last week that the county fair was our Face Book back in the day. I have great memories of those times and think about them often.
When I read The Beef Princess of Practical County, I was transported back to the Ashland County Fair. As I read, I knew that the author had to be someone who shared a similar background, it was all too accurate for someone who had not experienced growing up in an farming community to write. I was pleasantly surprised when I read about author Michelle Houts at the end, I had no idea how similar our backgrounds are! She also attended THE Ohio State University (Go Bucks!) graduating in education and currently lives on a farm raising grain, and livestock. I knew she knew what she was writing about.
The story takes place in Nowhere, Indiana where the farmers are known for their beef cattle. The Practical County Fair is held once a year in Nowhere and the families all compete for the title of Grand Champion, it's a real point of pride in farming communities everywhere, and Practical County is no exception. Libby Ryan has grown up around Ryansmeade Farm, and represents the fourth generation of Ryans to grow up on the farm. Michelle Houts chose to begin with Libby just about to lead her steer into the auction sale at the end of the fair, a tradition that you really should experience, and then flashback to the year that lead up to it. We are introduced to Libby and family as she goes to her grandfather's pasture to select her calves to raise for the fair. We follow the family through the year keeping progress on the calves and their growth, and the relationship between Libby and her father. Her father isn't sure that Libby is cut out for raising beef cattle and he misses his only son who is in his first year at Purdue.
In addition to raising the cattle, Libby must put up with a precocious little sister who has "grandchildren" as imaginary friends, and the Darling family. Three sisters named Precious, Lil and the youngest Ohma Darling, the older two have dominated the Beef Princess title for three years running and look to win it again. Before you laugh, these title are serious in farming towns and highly competitive. Typically more than a beauty pageant, the girls are quizzed on their knowledge of the animal and the industry, as well as poise. In this case, however, the Darlings seem to be winning on their looks more than anything. I knew families like the Darlings whose animals never won and who eventually succumbed to the embarrassment and cheated. The author does a fantastic job of describing the events that lead up to the downfall of the Darlings.
Libby learns that she loves everything about the beef industry except for the end result. She has horrible feelings of loss as the day of the auction grows nearer and even declares herself a vegetarian in support of her animals. It leads to a hilarious exchange between Libby and her best friend Carol Ann, my favorite character, in which Carol Ann tries to nail down just what kind of vegetarian Libby is. I didn't know there were so many categories! Libby also learns that she is not cut out to be the Beef Princess of Practical County when her mother encourages her to enter the competition. It's a fascinating plot watching Libby go from complete refusal of the competition to accepting the challenge to fighting her nerves during the pageant.
It's clear the Michelle Houts knows farming, fairs and the competition in the show ring. I loved this book, partly for the walk down memory lane and partly because of the positive portrayal of a dying life style, the small family farmer. I will recommend it to all of my fifth graders both as a good book and as an introduction to a culture they are probably not that familiar with. Most likely the girls will like it more than the boys.
This Michelle Houts' first novel, I'm on a roll with first novels this year, and she has a really cool website with scenes from her farm and how to show a steer.
I'm leaving for my annual golf trip to Michigan, or as I like to call it Summer Camp for Dads, in the morning and then my summer travels are complete. I suppose I'll have to start to focus a little more on the beginning of the year then.