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9 April 2011 THE YEAR MONEY GREW ON TREES by Aaron R. Hawkins, Houghton Mifflin, September 2010, 304p., ISBN: 978-0-547-27977-0


As a young child on Long Island, I had a wood-seated swing next to the backyard apple tree in which I learned to climb trees.  In the fall, I'd gather the tart, green apples and work with Mom, turning them into pies.


And so it was with great pleasure that, when I found my dream home in California, it was bordered on two sides by a neighbor's expansive Gravenstein apple orchard. 


The famed cherry blossoms of Washington, D.C. have nothing over what it was like to view forty acres of apple trees blooming in the spring.  I developed a sense of reverence for those old, gnarled trees standing row after row on the hillside.  With trunks measuring more than a foot in diameter,  I imagined them having lived through the same memorable decades as had I. 


At the tail-end of the 1990s, all of those distinguished, old apple trees were suddenly massacred in a couple of days time -- turned into firewood, with the ancient stumps piled up on the hillside in massive funeral pyres -- as the result of the wave of planting wine grape vineyards that swept our region.


It was really sad at the time but, in the long run, I'm figuring that the grapes are less of a nuisance to be next to: The vines are inundated with toxins sprayed to a height of only four feet, while the apple trees had been immersed in a spray cloud of toxins twenty feet high.  I figure that with the grapes next door, somewhat less of those toxins end up drifting into my yard. 


To make up for the loss of the old trees, I planted a few Gravenstein apple trees of my own.


THE YEAR MONEY GREW ON TREES, which also involves a lot of apple trees, begins in the midst of a blustery cold February in rural New Mexico in 1981.  The coming summer is nowhere in sight, but thirteen year-old Jackson Jones is on a collision course with summer or, at least, summer plans.


Jackson's elderly neighbor, Mrs. Nelson, has repeatedly employed him to do odd jobs, and she has repeatedly failed to compensate him fairly for his efforts.  Now, she has cornered him and is trying to sell him on an "opportunity of a lifetime" whereby Jackson will tend to her late husband's long-neglected 300-tree apple orchard; she will consider leaving him the orchard when she dies; and, maybe, she'll also give him some money if and when some apples are sold in the fall.


"But I can't go for that

(No) No can do"

-- Hall and Oates 1981 chart-topper


Jackson should, of course, run the other way and never seriously consider such a proposal.  But there is a good reason why the book's first chapter is titled "A Bad Choice and a Worse One."  For, on the very same day, at dinnertime...

"'I stopped by the scrap yard on the way home,' Dad announced after taking a few bites.  'Talked with 'ol Slim Nickles.  He says he gets real busy during the summer and needs extra help.  Just manual labor kinds of things, with no skills required.  I told him I had a son who didn't have any skills but could probably haul things around.  Slim said we could stop by and he'd look you over.'  Dad finished by pointing his fork at me.
"I let my fork drop on my plate and my mouth hang open.  The scrap yard was on the side of the highway Dad took to work, and he loved stopping in and searching through the mounds of metallic junk.  He'd stop in on Saturdays and drag me along.  I couldn't stand the place.  It was filthy and smelled like burning rubber.  And Slim Nickles was the biggest jerk I'd ever met.  He was usually covered in grease and had a wide red face and a huge gut.  He yelled every word he said and loved to intimidate people.  The one time he'd noticed me, he warned me to keep my hands in my pockets or he'd snap them off.

"Before any sounds of protest could come from my mouth, Mom spoke up.  'He's only thirteen.  Are you sure he's old enough to have a job?'

"'He'll be fourteen this summer.  When I was fourteen, I was working as much as a grown man, maybe more,' replied Dad, his voice getting louder.

"Mom rolled her eyes.  'Are you sure that's going to be a safe place for a boy to work?'

"'It'll be safe enough.  As long as he's not just sitting around the house like last summer.  Any more of that and he'll be a freeloader the rest of his life.'"


Of course, the clincher for Jackson is that Slim's son Skeeter -- who'd also be working at the scrap yard -- is the middle school's bully.  And so Jackson reluctantly decides to work out a deal with Mrs. Nelson to avoid the worse choice.  He arrives at a written agreement with her whereby he will keep all the proceeds from apple sales in excess of the $8,000 she says is a reasonable annual return for herself. 


He then fudges the truth with his parents.  And keeps fudging it all spring, summer, and fall.   


Meanwhile, after finding a book at the library on raising apples and realizing how over his head he is in this endeavor -- long before the first blossoms of spring even arrive -- he similarly fails to disclose the terms of his agreement with Mrs. Nelson to his siblings and cousins (who live next door).  He succeeds in signing them all on to assist week after week in what they are told is a spectacular money-making scheme. 


THE YEAR MONEY GREW ON TREES is the story of what happens from that cold February through those growing and harvesting seasons of 1981.  Within the story there are lots of tools and principles of apple growing, and of business in general, that are both explained and illustrated (by the author).  There are a couple of adult heroes to balance against the villainy of Mrs. Nelson and obnoxiousness of Jackson's father.  And there is this great, old (older than me) tractor. 


I love how Aaron R. Hawkings' story provides such interesting details about growing an orchard while simultaneously offering so many great lessons about business and about the manner in which one might behave in dealing with others, without ever becoming the least bit preachy.

As someone who grew up working, as someone who has always been good with numbers, and as someone who loves apple trees, this to me is a special tale.  
Richie Partington, MLIS
Richie's Picks http://richiespicks.com
Moderator http://groups.yahoo.com/group/middle_school_lit/


FTC NOTICE: Richie receives free books from lots of publishers who hope he will Pick their books.  You can figure that any review was written after reading and dog-earring a free copy received.  Richie retains these review copies for his rereading pleasure and for use in his booktalks at schools and libraries.

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