Friday, August 16, 2013

Love Letter to the Midwest

The Thing about Luck by Cynthia Kadohata, illus. by Julia Kuo, begins as the story of an intergenerational family and transforms into a love letter to the Midwest.
Cynthia Kadohata

Each year, Summer Miyamoto's family hits the road to harvest wheat in the fields of Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma. Usually her parents go with Summer, her brother, Jaz, her Obaachan (grandmother) and Jiichan (grandfather). This time, her parents are in Japan attending to elderly ailing relatives. So Summer's grandparents are in charge. Jiichan operates a combine, which reaps, threshes and winnows the wheat, and Obaachan and Summer prepare the meals for the combine operators. 

Their days are long, but the setting is breathtaking. Here Summer describes the uncut wheat on a gentle slope of the Franklins' Oklahoma farm: "It looked like windblown sand beneath the bright sky." As someone who grew up in Michigan, this reader appreciated the Midwest anew, seeing the landscape through Summer's eyes. Her first-person narrative perfectly captures the rhythms of their days, as determined by daylight, weather and mealtimes.

Summer roots readers in the moment: we see the operators navigate the rolling hills with the unwieldy combines, anticipating every uneven patch, and the precision with which the drivers must align to the grain trailer to empty their load. There is an art to the process unique to its mission, and every step must be executed with absolute precision. Summer's awe inspires our own: "I don't know. I mean, maybe computers and cell phones and rocket ships are more magical, but to me, nothing beats the combine.... In a short time, the combine takes something humans can't use and then turns it into something that can feed us." Julia Kuo's drawings (meant to represent Summer's notebook pages) show each stage of the process with a handful of clear line drawings.

When Summer must, in a moment of crisis (Jiichan falls suddenly ill on the job), drive the combine herself, readers learn just how mammoth these machines are. Throughout, a story unfolds of the toll the work takes on Jiichan, as well as a lighter subplot about Summer's crush on her employers' son. These, too, highlight the cycles of life, as Obaachan and Jiichan share wisdom gained through experience with their granddaughter, whose life is just beginning. And always the land stretches before them, and the descent of night or rain threatens their mission to yield the most wheat that they can from these fields of windblown sand beneath the bright sky. 

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