Books | Farm boy

A review of A Farm Dies Once A Year, by Arlo Crawford.

Any sentence in the forthcoming memoir A Farm Dies Once a Year (Henry Holt, $25, April 1, listen to an audio excerpt here) could be the first line of a short story. “A man who lived in a shack near Orbisonia had moved back to town after getting a degree from Princeton, and he had become an obsessive blueberry grower,” writes first-time author Arlo Crawford. 

When Crawford lists the possessions his mother brought when she and her hippie husband left friends agog and moved to a farm in rural Pennsylvania, I swear I could see Crawford smiling on the page. “She had a sewing machine, an ashtray set with semiprecious stones, a copy of the novel Sometimes a Great Nation, and a Siamese cat named Eggroll.”

With publishing houses scrambling to consolidate and bad tidings knelling the end of print, A Farm Dies Once a Year is an anomaly that I first found suspicious: a book for the sake of books.

There’s no gimmick or cross-promotional BS. The author is neither well-known nor a son of wealth. New Morning Farm, his parents’ 95-acre property, isn’t spearheading the use of any bold technology. When Henry Holt (an imprint of Macmillan) purchased the manuscript, they knew there would be no sequels. A Farm Dies Once a Year isn’t particularly commercial. Crawford won’t be minted. 

The book is surprising for several more reasons. I made the mistake of thinking Arlo was a veteran homesteader who toiled away on this memoir for decades, grateful to have a written legacy of his life’s work in his final years. “When I was thirty-one years old,” he begins, launching into 250 pages of past-tense prose. Not only does the bewitching title directly reference the end of life, but an intertwined shovel-and-pitchfork illustration on the back of the book recalls a skull and crossbones. 

Crawford actually turned 31 in 2009, not long after he wrote about farm life and a former flame in The New York Times Magazine. In his book, he chronicles the unremarkable growing season he spent at New Morning during a lull between jobs on both coasts. Each chapter is a swift read, and Crawford writes sparsely while still including photo-quality descriptions (his use of color borders on hypnotic).

His missteps are equally scarce. In the second half of A Farm Dies Once a Year, Crawford begins to confuse interesting details with trivialities. Basically, if a character opens a door, it’s safe to assume that he or she turned the knob.

Also, woven throughout the text are Crawford’s reflections and nagging curiosities about a neighbor’s murder two decades before. The culprit was never in question, and there were plenty of witnesses. It’s a closed case. While Crawford relays the fascinating circumstances -- an erratic mailman had one too many encounters with some farm dogs and shot their owner -- they are no newly unearthed facts. Crawford is not Truman Capote investigating the Clutter family killings in Kansas. In the book’s pastoral setting, the author writes about all sorts of inevitable losses -- from frostbitten crops to abandoning childhood innocence. The inclusion of a slaying threatens to hijack the plot, and for a moment I feared a wrong turn towards Gimmickland.

Fortunately, my worry was misplaced. 

At the start of his summer on the farm, Crawford builds an isolated shelter overlooking the crops. It is initially just an elevated platform for pitching a tent, but eventually there’s a tin roof and a trap door and a comfy bed. Not long into his project, Crawford shows some sketches to his father, who has run New Morning for 40 years. “Is it true?” dad asks his cockeyed son. Translation: is the foundation structurally sound? A Farm Dies Once a Year is true without question.

(Image courtesy of Creative Commons/GollyGForce)

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