We just returned from a relaxing week in Northern Michigan, which is responsible for about 70-80 percent of the domestic production of tart cherries. The National Cherry Festival was taking place in Traverse City, highways 31 and US131 were dotted with the usual cherry stands, but this year the festival imported many of its cherries from Washington (and as far away as Norway and Poland). An unusual warm period in March followed by an April freeze spelled doom for this year's cherry crop, which was estimated to be three percent of the typical yield. The region usually produces hundreds of millions of pounds in a season.
So it might seem like a strange time to share a favorite old book called Too Many Cherries, but the dilemma presented by the title and opening pages show that to communities and families who rely on such crops, a feast can create as much hardship as a famine.
The book starts with a depiction of the grave concern of Bill Bailey's cherry farming father because there are too many tart cherries in the trees, and he's not sure if the resulting low prices will even justify paying the pickers to keep the fruit from rotting on the branches.
"Well," said Bill's mother, "of all things! After we worried through that cold spell in April for fear the blossoms would freeze and we'd lose half our crop!"
"I wish we had," said Bill's father, looking up from his plate."
He explains that the regional stores in upstate New York were paying so little for cherries that all the local growers were going to let them rot on the trees.
Then they get the "crazy scheme" to load up the pickup truck and drive the cherries "300 miles" to a distant city, like Cleveland or Pittsburgh or Baltimore to sell the cherries for twice the price they can get locally. The idea gets everyone excited and really lightens the mood at the dinner table.
I know the whole scheme sort of flies in the face of the whole trendy "buy local" movement, but considering the recent push-back and these folksy illustrations with their noble depiction of the small family farm I ca totally get behind the plan. Besides, the pickers were counting on getting paid!
I really love the signs Bill's mom paints for them to sell their cherries in the distant city:
The next part of the book involves a 1940s truck stop, and here's where I have to come clean and admit the soft spot in my heart for that old trucker culture. Think of the first scene in John Ford's Grapes of Wrath or the songs of Red Sovine, Red Simpson, Dick Curless, and Dale Watson. So I love this chapter and its illustrations and its depiction of the truck stop and the men and women who inhabit it. It's the closest thing a small midwestern town gets to that archetypical port full of colorful foreigners (or the Star Wars cantina).
I love the truckers' braggadocio and this little poem about the regional products they're transporting to new markets. For all that "buy local" talk there is still something powerful about the idea that the varied regions were all good at making something, and the roads and the truckers who drove them brought it all together.
And ladies named Miss Maggie always had pie.
Unfortunately, the old pickup truck starts acting up at Maggie's truck stop. A trucker named Slim gets the motor to catch, but warns them that the engine doesn't sound very good. "If you get stuck, don't let any barnyard slush-pump monkey with her," he warns them.
In Pennsylvania, George and Bill encounter Amish farms and barns, and soon enough, Amish farmers in buggies on the road.
George does a pretty good job of explaining the Amish and their ways to Bill. Then the engine fails them.
An Amish man and his son stop with their wagon loaded with "tomatoes, lettuce, peas, and other vegetables" on their way to the market in nearby Lancaster. The Amish man---speaking in German---unhitches his wagon and offers his horses to pull the stalled truck from the middle of the road.
Although they were headed to Pittsburgh, Bill and George pull right into the Lancaster farmer's market and start selling cherries right away. A merciful police officer lets them sell without the proper license. While George is off talking to a mechanic about the truck, Bill manages to sell the cherries.
Bill dines with the Amish n some food he's never had before ("Wienerschnitzel and Sauerkraut and Apfelkuchen") and the Amish asks them to come back the next week with more cherries to sell. On the way back to New York, they stop at Maggie's truck stop and Slim lets Bill ride in the "suicide box" to sleep as they head back towards home (Slim was headed the same way).
This is an unusual children's book and I love it for many reasons. It is surprisingly well-written and the subject matter still resonates after 60+ years. Beyond the great depiction of truck stop culture, I love the elements of regionalism---the cities the characters talk about, the Amish characters with their German dialogue. And beyond being a good story, it exposes kids to some things they might not otherwise see or think about in our contemporary landscape. I don't buy or read the kids a lot of books from this particular era, but this one is a wonderful exception.