For a 16-year-old boy out in the world alone for the first time, every day's an education in the hard work and boredom of migrant labor; every day teaches him something more about friendship, or hunger, or profanity, or lust--always lust. He learns how a poker game, or hitching a ride, can turn deadly. He discovers the secret sadness and generosity to be found on a lonely farm in the middle of nowhere. Then he joins up with a carnival and becomes a grunt, running a ride and shilling for the geek show. He's living the hard carny life and beginning to see the world through carny eyes. He's tough. Cynical. By the end of the summer he's pretty sure he knows it all. Until he meets Ruby.
No stranger to memoir, Paulsen (My Life in Dog Years; Father Water, Mother Woods) returns to a series of episodes he previously fictionalized in the 1977 Tiltawhirl John and now presents the material "as real as I can write it, and as real as I can remember it happening," as he says in an author's note. It is punishingly harsh stuff: 16 years old in 1955, "the boy," as he is called throughout, wakes up to find his drunk mother in his bed and realizes that tonight "something [is] different, wrong, about her need for him." He runs away and lands a backbreaking job on a beet farm in North Dakota, where his wages are cancelled out by the farmer's charges for the use of his hoe, for the tumbledown lodgings and for the only food available, sandwiches made of week-old bread that cost a dollar apiece. Eventually the boy starts working with a carnival, where he learns carny scams and is initiated into sex by the carnival stripper, Ruby. In a mannered prose style, Paulsen serves up strings of studied, impartial observations in paragraph-long sentences. The technique calls attention to itself, as does the occasional circumlocution (e.g., the seemingly endless sentence describing intercourse with Ruby concludes with "sinking into the wetness, the forever-warm wetness of Ruby"). Paulsen fans, however, will probably respond to the vote of confidence in their ability to handle such gritty subjects, and no one can fail to appreciate the author's transcendence of the appalling circumstances he describes. Ages 14-up.
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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January 07, 2002
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Excerpt from The Beet Fields by Gary Paulsen
The North Dakota sun came up late.
They were already in the beet fields and had taken up their hoes with the handles cut off so they could not be leaned upon to rest; had already eaten cold beans and slices of week-old bread from the metal pie pans nailed to the table to be hosed off between shifts of eaters; had already filled themselves on rusty water from the two-handled milk cans on the wagon at the end of the field; had already peed and taken a dump and scratched and spit and splashed cold water in their faces to drip down their necks.
Had done all of these after sleeping the short night on feed sacks in sleeping sheds near the barn; after they had come in to a new day, then the sun came up.
The Mexicans always outworked him.
They spread out at the south end of the sugar-beet fields and began to work, and the Mexicans always outworked him. At first he tried to understand how that could be. It was all so simple. They were to walk down the rows of beets and remove every other beet. The farmers--he always thought of them as the farmers--planted more seeds than they needed, to ensure proper germination, and the seeds all came up and had to be thinned to allow the beets to grow properly.
So they worked down the rows, cutting left and right, taking a beet, leaving a beet, and it did not seem possible that one person could do it that much faster than another, but always the Mexican men and women, and even children, outworked him. Even when he worked hard, hacked back and forth without looking, worked in a frenzy until his hands bled on the handle, he could not keep up. Their white shirts always drifted ahead of him, farther and farther out like white birds flying low, until they were so far ahead they were spots and then nothing.
Rows of beets a mile long. Left and right for a mile and then turn and start back, halfway up to meet the Mexicans coming back.
Eleven dollars an acre. Four rows to the acre, a half acre a day, all day the hoes cutting, left and right, the rows never ending, and even trying to catch up with the Mexicans was not enough to stop the boredom, nothing to stop the awful boredom of the beets.
The sun was hot when it came up late. There was no early-morning coolness, no relief. An early heat came with the first edge of the sun and by the time the sun was full up, he was cooking and looking for some relief. He tried hoeing with his left hand low, then his right hand, then leaning forward more, then less, but nothing helped. It was hot, getting hotter, and he straightened and spit and resettled the straw hat he had bought in Grafton. It had a piece of green plastic in the brim that looked cool but wasn't. He had bought the hat because all the Mexicans had them and he wanted to look like them, blend in with them in the field even though they were a rich dark color and he looked like white paper burned around the edges. But the hat did not seem to fit right and he kept readjusting it to get the sweatband broken in. It was the same with his hands. They did not break in. He had been working three days now, but blisters had rebroken and left pink skin that opened and bled. He bought leather gloves from the farmer who sold them the hoes. The farmer sold them hoes for three dollars and gloves for another two dollars and they had to pay a dollar a day for a sandwich and he had worked three days and had only hoed an acre. Not counting the hat, which he'd bought with money he'd found in his pockets when he ran, he had now earned eleven dollars, with three taken out for the hoe and three for sandwiches and two for the gloves and four and a half for three dinners, and fifty cents a night for three nights. After three days' work, he owed the farmer three dollars.
He did the math while he worked.
"I pay eleven dollars an acre," the farmer had told him. "You can hoe an acre a day easy--eleven dollars a day."
When he'd started hoeing he dreamt of wealth, did the math constantly until the numbers filled his mind. Eleven dollars an acre, an acre a day; after ten days a hundred and ten dollars, twenty days the almost-unheard-of sum of two hundred and twenty dollars. More than a man made per month working in a factory for a dollar an hour--and he was only sixteen. Rich. He would be rich.
But after the first day when his back would not straighten and his hands would not uncurl from the hoe handle and his blisters were bleeding, after all that and two-fifty for food, and three for the hoe, and fifty cents for the lodging, not to mention the hat and gloves, only a third of an acre had been thinned that first day, and he knew he would not get rich, would never be rich. By the second day he was no longer even sad about not being rich and laughed with the Mexicans who would also never be rich but who smiled and laughed all the time while they worked. Now, on the fourth day, gloved, he just hoed.
He worked hard, his head down, the hoe snaking left and right. An hour could have passed, a minute, a day, a year. He did not look up, kept working until it seemed it should be time for a break, and he stood and looked across the field to the north where the Mexicans were small white dots, moving farther ahead as he watched.
"Shit." Swearing helped. His back ached and it wasn't yet midday and he was thirsty, his tongue stuck to the sides of his mouth with the dryness, but the milk cans of water in the old pickup were a half mile in back of him and he didn't want to take the time to walk back for a drink. They would bring water at midday along with the dry sandwiches, when the sun was nearly overhead. Another hour to go. "Shit."
Before bending back to the hoe--the "fuuwaucking hoe," as the old Mexican who led the group called it--he looked around the field, closely first at individual beet plants, then out until they blurred in green, and then farther out, around and out and up, in all directions. It was like standing in the center of an enormous bowl that went green to the sky and then yellow blue into the gold-hot sun, the color mixing with the heat in some way to press down on him, pressing, pushing, bending, driving him back to the hoe.
He cut left and right, cut and cut, the beet plants flipping off the shiny blade of the hoe, working again without looking up, giving himself to the beets until his back was hot with the sun overhead and he heard the grinding of a motor coming along the side of the field, and he looked up to see the farmer's wife bringing food.
She was a thin woman, and she had a revolver on the seat of the truck next to her, blue steel with a short barrel. There were bullets in the revolver. He had seen the small rounded ends shining from the cylinder. She knew how to use the gun; he had heard her talking to her husband.
"I don't want no Mexicans after my body," she'd said. "They come after my body and I'm going to shoot them and I know how to do it, too. I don't give a darn about no Mexicans and no nasty beets, neither."
The farmer had nodded but looked embarrassed at the same time and he ate apart from the Mexicans, and the boy thought it must be because he was embarrassed about the gun but it might be because he got good food, thick sandwiches with meat and coffee, and the people working the hoes got week-old garbage for food.
He thought it was all meaningless because the farmer's wife was nowhere near as pretty as some of the Mexican women, who had thick black hair and dark eyes that lifted at the corners. Their bodies were full and rich, where the farmer's wife looked rail-skinny and empty; none of the Mexican men looked at her but always away and to the side.
But she kept the gun close to her side when she came with the sandwiches. The Mexicans did not seem to mind the gun, or at least said nothing about it even when they were alone in the barn making beds with the feed sacks--unless they said it in Spanish, which he did not understand. Usually they spoke in English when he was around, except to tease each other and sometimes him, and he thought that Mexico must be a very fine place because they were always laughing and joking and didn't pay any attention to the gun.
The dollar sandwiches were made of week-old bread with a thin layer of peanut butter without any jelly. He would not have eaten one but he was so hungry he could not stand to not eat. Even with the sandwiches he was hungry; the afternoon would go on forever if he didn't eat.
There was a huge pile of the sandwiches on the plate set out on the hood, open to the flies and bugs, and the farmer's wife was happy to hand them out--always with the gun close by, of course--and she made a small mark on a piece of paper for each sandwich. Each mark a dollar against the money for hoeing beets. But he was the only one to take a sandwich.
The Mexicans came from the field, somehow always so clean that their white clothes made his eyes hurt. They had corn-tortilla burritos with beans in them and the boy envied them the beans and tortillas but was too shy to ask for one.
Each night near the sleeping sheds the Mexicans cooked a large pot of pinto beans, except they called them frijoles. The pot was cast iron and big enough to cook five pounds of beans at a time. While the beans were cooking the men took turns finding bits of wood along the fencerows and in the brushy ditches to burn under the pot and the women put a piece of metal over another part of the fire and made tortillas with a sound that made the boy think of music.
They would take a small blob of dough from a bowl and use their hands in a slapping motion for rhythm, slap-push-slap-push, while they talked to each other, and somehow they did not seem tired from the fields the way he felt tired each night.
Six, eight slaps and a small corn tortilla would fly out of their hands, fly like a round golden bird and land on the red-hot metal to hiss once and then fry, giving off a smell that seemed to come from the earth and from corn and from all the food the boy had ever eaten. One woman to make the tortillas and flick them onto the hot metal and another woman to use her finger and thumb and, as deft as any doctor, catch an edge of each tortilla and flip it. A flip so quick it made the tortilla dance, up and over and down on the new side to cook, and then, in seconds, off to be wrapped in a clean piece of cloth near the fire, where there was a stack of them, thin and tall and smelling of heaven.
During the day the men found things to put in the beans. The boy did not always see what they found. Sometimes a root or other vegetable, now and then squirrels, which they killed with little leather slings and round rocks, once a rabbit, and twice some woodchucks that lived in holes along a fencerow and came out to chukker a warning when they went by. The woodchucks and rabbit they took out of their holes with a long piece of old barbwire shaped like a crank on one end. They stuck the wire down in the hole and twisted the crank end until the barbwire wrapped up in the animal's fur and then they jerked it out and killed it with a hoe, all done very quickly so they wouldn't lose time thinning the beets.
All the men carried knives, sharp and clean, and some of them had switchblades. The boy had seen switchblades before but the Mexican men used them more correctly in some way, so that when they took a knife from their loose pants and either snapped or flicked the blade open it seemed to become part of their hands while they neatly gutted and skinned the animal and wrapped the meat in a piece of sacking.
Whatever else they put in the beans, the women always added some garlic and spices and red chilies, which they carried on a string, and the smell that came from the pot when they opened the lid to add the small animals or to stir the beans with a large wooden spoon while the steam worked out into the air, that smell was almost impossible for the boy to endure.
But he was shy and did not dare ask for the food even when he was standing in the hot sun paying a dollar for a sandwich that was covered with fly specks and tasted like crap handed to him by a woman with a .38 lying on the seat beside her.
As on the previous three days, the Mexicans moved off by themselves to sit and eat and the boy took his sandwich and sat away to the side and ate it in four dry bites, just getting it out of the way. The sandwich was only enough to make him more hungry and he lay back on the warm grass and fought buying another one because it would put him further behind in wages and the thought of working this hard for a dry sandwich was insane.
"Here, eat this."
The boy opened his eyes to see the oldest Mexican man, over forty, holding out two tortillas wrapped around cold beans. For a second the boy stared. He had been with them three and a half days now and none of them had said a word to him.
"I haven't got any money."
The man drew back, his eyes hard. "It is not for money. For money I would let your skinny ass die. It is because you do not have any meat on your bones and you are young." He held out the burritos again. "Eat these."