I Review Children's Books: Apple Farmer Annie
Wellington tells what first appears to be a modern-day revamp of Johnny Appleseed, the story of a supposedly happy apple farmer who brings apples, apple-based products, and happiness into New York City to sell at a farmer's market. Children may accept this apple farm fairy tale, but adult readers will quickly notice the sad reality that underlies Annie's starry-eyed dream.
Annie is pretty obviously a GenX-er who grew up in a rural area, probably in the northeast, then moved to NYC after graduating from Brown. After a few years in underpaid positions only tenuously related to her degree in environmental sustainability she grew disillusioned, and, out of nostalgia for the hobby farm where her grandparents lived when she was a little girl, decided to try to make a go of it as a small farmer. To get back to the earth, if you will. To escape the high rents and shallow consumerism of Manhattan, and grow good old fashioned wholesome apples.*
Apple Farmer Annie glosses over this backstory and focuses exclusively on her day-to-day life as an Apple Farmer. Annie is the sole laborer on her apple farm. Annie tends the trees, harvests the apples, presses the cider, makes the baked goods, cleans the kitchen, drives the truck into the city, and manages the stall at the farmer's market. She must necessarily be working from the crack of dawn until well past dark trying to keep her apple farm afloat, and, let's face it, an apple farm run by one person is certainly not turning a profit.** She smiles constantly, and the book tells us "Annie was so happy to have her own apple farm." But there's a hollowness in Annie's eyes. Her utter lack of human companionship and obvious poverty--you can tell her finances are stretched to the limit because she has only one shirt, a bizarre checkered garment that looks like a racing jersey affixed with a peter pan collar, and that can only have come from the reject bin at a thrift store--suggest that her smile is just an attempt to disguise the fact that she is a quivering, roughly human-shaped pillar of anxiety. Her constant "sorting" and "organizing" of her apples, her obsession with saving the most perfect apples for market, the long lists of apple varieties she keeps in her journal are all evidence of the nervous desperation at the root of her existence. Jonagold, she writes in her journal. Pink Lady. Gala.
Wellington's tale is darker than the bright orange and yellow cover suggests, but it has its redeeming qualities. I appreciate that Annie offers a role model to my daughter: a woman entrepreneur, a knowledgeable farmer, a person who both takes pleasure in hard work and enjoys solitude. Isn't childhood supposed to be the time when you believe that "space pirate", "cat," and "apple farmer" are viable career paths? And I've benefitted from reading Apple Farmer Annie 37 times, too. Every time, as my daughter turns the pages, a sense of foreboding steals over me as I read. How does Annie make the payments on her truck?, I wonder. What if she falls in the orchard and injures herself, how long would it take for someone to find her? Does she HAVE any friends? Or family? A business contact she talks to on the phone now and then? And even if she can crawl to help on a broken leg, will she be able to recover from the medical bills and the weeks of lost labor? What will happen to her sense of self when, inevitably, she loses the farm to a corporate concern, has to move back home at the age of 38 and finds herself living with her parents, temping, a lonely, failed apple farmer?
Perhaps you are thinking that “provokes anxiety and dread” doesn't sound like a redeeming quality in a children's book, but it’s the perfect antidote to the days when I start to think my life would be better if I just threw it all in and moved my family to some rural life of subsistence farming and goat raising. It would NOT be an idyllic return to the land, Apple Farmer Annie reminds me. It would be a nightmare of isolation, unpaid bills, back breaking manual labor, and seriously adorable goats. Wellington has produced the rare book that encourages my child to dream big, while reminding me that cities, steady jobs, and human relationships have their rewards.
Representation: Annie is a thin, white, able-bodied blonde lady.*** There's only one page with other people on it, and there a mix of ethnicities are depicted; everyone is fairly thin and able-bodied.
Should you buy: Sure, if you like apples and and need to be brought back to reality from idealized back-to-the-land fantasies.
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* Kristen Williams, "’Old Time Mem'ry’: Contemporary Urban Craftivism and the Politics of Doing-It-Yourself in Postindustrial America,” Utopian Studies, 22:2, 2011 303-320. Williams argues that contemporary urban and subsistence farming are part of a larger utopian movement that has its roots in back-to-basics and back-to-the-land movements dating back to the founding of the United States.
** Nicole Dawkins, Do-It-Yourself: the precarious work and postfeminist politics of handmaking (in) Detroit,”Utopian Studies, 22:2, 2011: 261-284. Dawkins argues that the narratives of pleasure, self-sufficiency, and autonomy that govern contemporary craft and creative work are valuable to neoliberal economic policies because they obscure the grueling, precarious nature of the labor. While Dawkins does not explicitly include small farmers in her study, the parallels are apparent.
***Ibid., Dawkins also argues that the “creative class” that has begun to develop in Detroit and been heralded as the “savior” of the city is predominantly white and uses aesthetic arguments and a disavowal of political goals to recreate and perpetuate “exclusionary racial practices.” Of course, this doesn’t totally apply to Annie, as she has no friends or community to exclude others from.