Desiring to grow things is surely in humans’ DNA, planted at least 10,000 years ago in our genetic code, not as old as the impulse to gather wild food, but tenured. As a boy and young man haunted by the loss of our family farm, I devoured back-to-the-land literature for years; then I farmed commercially for over a decade; and I’m now up to my eyeballs in writing my own memoir of rural life. Almost burned out on the genre as a reader, and fairly post-agrarian as a recent suburbanite, I wouldn’t have looked twice at Jim Minick’s memoir The Blueberry Years if Brevity hadn’t asked me to review it. I’m so glad.
The book is interesting, well done, and was helpful to my own work. Whereas I used to read farm memoirs to fuel my farming fantasies, The Blueberry Years inspired me as a writer who is trying to tell a similar story. Minick shows a young couple throw themselves earnestly and joyfully at organic farming. Their pick-your-own blueberry farm became a thriving exemplar of eco- and human-friendly family farming. It wasn’t their fault that America has a cheap food policy. This makes “farming the system” of federal ag subsidies mandatory for almost all farms—about half of farm income in America comes indirectly from taxes through the government—but the Minicks went their own way.
Minick is honest about how almost impossible it is in farming on a small scale to do more than break even; that admission in itself struck me as rare. And admitting the financial failure of a cherished romantic dream—one successful in many ways, including as a way of life—isn’t easy. Second, he struggles manfully to address the inexplicable: then why did you do it, and why did you stop? I admired that he tried to answer these questions, even if doing so must have been vexing at some level. And even if his reasons escape logic because the impulse to farm, by anyone with other options, is seldom logical.
A teacher of writing and literature at Radford University in Virginia, Minick and his wife, Sarah, now live on another farm where they garden, hike, and work in the woods. He’s the author of a collection of essays, Finding a Clear Path, and two books of poetry, Her Secret Song and Burning Heaven. According to his web site, he’s at work on a novel about fire, healing, and Pennsylvania Dutch folklore.
As a fellow ex-farmer and a current memoirist, I emailed Jim Minick some questions, below, followed by his replies.
The structure of the book is interesting. Your story opens with the arrival of your 1,000 potted blueberry bushes, then you go back to show the hard work that had to happen— of clearing an overgrown field—before the overwhelming job of planting them. In a note you also acknowledge that you compressed about a dozen years into a round decade for the purposes of storytelling. Could you discuss the reasons for such major structural decisions?
It took me several years of trying to write The Blueberry Years before I found the “leading edge”…that place where I wanted the reader to experience the whole story with Sarah and me as we chased this blueberry dream. That edge, I finally realized, was when the blueberry bushes arrived on April 1, 1995—a fitting day. So, I started there, then had a whole big chunk of the story that happened before this moment still to tell. I kept that part in past tense, and the rest in present, but then I still had the problem of too much time. How do you make a story that covers over a dozen years readable? For me, it was to compress these years, combine them into just a few, but to also be honest with the reader about this compression up front.
I was struck by how scenic your memoir is. You employ expository sidebars about blueberry history and culture, but the book’s heart is watching you and Sarah in action—clearing, planting, mulching, managing pickers. You’re a poet, and your love of language shows, as in your evocative prologue on the blueberry pickers. But was your dramatic, cinematic writing here natural, or a skill you had to learn or develop for this book?
One of the hardest, most important skills I learned in writing The Blueberry Years was how to make the whole of it have a strong dramatic arc. I had written three other books, one a collection of essays, and two poetry, but none of these three required me to figure out how to tell a story over a 300-400 page span. All writers are gods playing with time on many levels. As a poet, I learned to play with time (and image/metaphor) on the micro-level—with each word and sentence. And now, with this memoir (and a novel I’m currently working on), I’ve learned (and am learning) how to play with time on the macro-level…how to weave all the many scenes into a coherent, richly layered, whole.
You write frankly about your feeling of exile in the country and about your failed attempts to join a larger community in rural churches and other venues. Your relationship with your close neighbor, Joe, a know-it-all conventional farmer, is both prickly and affectionate, and one of the book’s most appealing threads, as are the picker portraits. What were some issues you faced in presenting yourself, temper and all, as a character? Did you have any concerns about portraying the customers and other civilians who walk through the book’s pages?
One of my favorite essays is Edward Hoagland’s “The Courage of Turtles.” At the end of it, he portrays himself in an unfavorable way, and by doing so, he magnifies both our human ineptitude and the turtle’s amazing courage. So, I took that as a model. Also, for me, the truly great memoirs strive to understand that individual writer’s past, the personal history as it intersects with others’ personal histories. So for me to shy away from the issues of community and loneliness seemed dishonest to myself and the reader. I wanted to understand why I have this pull for the company of others while also having this desire for lots and lots of solitude.
In The Blueberry Years, I write about Thoreau a few times, mainly because I love his work, even if curmudgeonly, and also because he loved blueberries. But a friend had this interesting observation after reading my memoir: he said that Thoreau often wrote about solitude while he went into town for dinner every day, while I often write about searching for community, while I go for a solo hike into the woods every day. And he’s probably right. So, if any memoirist can identify these central conflicts, pull them out and analyze them in an artful way, I think the world is a better place.
Portraying other people is always tricky, even if you like them and try to capture them in a positive light. My editor suggested changing all the names, so this I did, and now I have readers asking if so-and-so in the book is so-and-so in real life. And even the neighbors or pickers who treated us poorly had redeeming qualities, if you look hard enough (sometimes it takes a flashlight and a magnifying glass!). Even your villains, in fiction or nonfiction, have to be loved, so I try to make that understanding undergird all of my work.
How long did The Blueberry Years take you to write, and what were the key writing lessons it taught you?
Roughly 8 years, off and on, with my three other books coming into existence in that time period, and years of full-time work as well.
A. Playing with time (what I said above).
B. Persistence (just keeping at this project—writing regularly for sanity’s sake).
C. And More Persistence (the book was rejected by umpteen agents. When it finally found one, it was still rejected by umpteen more editors before finally finding a home at Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s.).
D. Gratitude. None of us are here without the communities of families, friends, teachers, other writers, and readers who support us. And Sarah, my wife, put up with a helluvalot both in the field as we chased our blueberry dream, and now, in the world, as people read about her in The Blueberry Years. I’m lucky to call her my best friend.