The Beet Fields: Memories of a Sixteenth Summer

The Beet Fields: Memories of a Sixteenth Summer

3.8 16
by Gary Paulsen

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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… See more details below


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.

From the Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
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. (Sept.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Children's Literature
Gary Paulsen has the reputation of exciting the most reluctant readers. His greatest books are those in which he tells the truth about what he has seen and experienced. His newest book is his most honest. He explains in his introduction, "Small portions of this book appeared in softer forms, shadowed and sketched and changed into gentler fiction...But here it is now as real as I can write it, and as real as I can remember it happening." Paulsen's sixteenth summer is the year in which he ran away from home and he faces sexual, emotional, and intellectual coming-of-age by himself while picking beets, fleeing police, and working as a "carnie." The memoir escapes harshness because of the extraordinary detail and imagery, which Paulsen uses as skillfully as his truths. He brings you into his world as he remembers eating cold beans and week-old bread from pie pans nailed to a table, ready to be hosed off between shifts of eaters. Readers follow the Mexican workers, whose white shirts always drifted ahead of him, farther and farther out like white birds flying low. These images serve as an anchor as Paulsen recaptures the strange mix of growing awareness and fading innocence. 2000, Delacorte, $15.95. Ages 12 up. Reviewer: Susie Wilde
This coming-of-age story takes place during one unnamed sixteen-year-old boy's first summer on his own. His experiences—from thinning an endless beet crop as a migrant worker to the tawdry excitement of a carnival roadie's nights—teach many lessons about work and life. There are days of pain and exhaustion, camaraderie and generosity, and choice and chance, in a period during which the boy changes from man to boy again in an endless struggle with opportunities for lust and love. From the time he runs in confusion from a home made unsafe by his mother's lonely need to his fateful sexual awakening with the carny stripper, Ruby, who has needs of her own, the boy sets out on the road to a manhood shaped by outside forces and by his own desires and dreams, "trying to do and be all the things he had heard... in all the tall tales and lies told by all the boys who would be men." Paulsen says this is his story, one that he has waited twenty years to tell honestly in fiction. It comes alive with fully realized characters—the Mexican families in the fields, farmer bosses, friends and foes he meets on the road, cynical carny geeks, and barkers. Paulsen's poetic, rhythmic prose offers descriptions that make readers taste the spicy tortillas, feel parched throats in the relentless sun, and hear the squeals and hurdy gurdy of the Tilt-a-Whirl. Paulsen portrays the roller coaster of emotions that a boy of sixteen experiences as he tries on every possible look and attitude on the way to manhood. The striking cover art of a barebacked young man against a hot orange sky is compelling. Beet Fields is felt deeply, a realistic and recommended title. VOYA CODES: 4Q 4P S (Better than most,marred only by occasional lapses; Broad general YA appeal; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12). 2000, Random House, 192p, $15.95. Ages 16 to 18. Reviewer: Mary Arnold

SOURCE: VOYA, December 2000 (Vol. 23, No. 5)

School Library Journal
Gr 9 Up-Twenty years ago, Paulsen told the tale of an unnamed boy who ran away to work as a migrant laborer and carnival hand in Tilt-a-Whirl John (Puffin, 1990). As a story for younger adolescents, it had few of the rough edges that one would expect in a portrayal of a young man on the run. In The Beet Fields, some of those characters and incidents resurface, but this time, the story is a memorable and powerful one. The unnamed protagonist leaves his drunken, amorous mother in the middle of the night and takes on the backbreaking work of thinning beets by the acre on a North Dakota farm. He respects the optimism and resourcefulness of the Mexican field hands, and is welcomed into their community. The teen is keenly aware of his burgeoning sexuality and longs for the attentions of a farmer's daughter at his next job, but never gets to speak to her. While there, a corrupt sheriff comes looking for a runaway, and steals the boy's earnings. When he joins a carnival, one of the "carnies" educates him about women by day and performs in the "geek" show at night as a wild man who bites the heads off live chickens. Lust abounds when the boy meets a confident older beauty who performs a strip show in the carnival and who seduces him. A short epilogue tells of the young man's enlistment in the Army. Consistent with his trademark short sentences and fragments, Paulsen's simple but hard-edged prose strengthens this addition to his autobiographical odyssey.-Vicki Reutter, Cazenovia High School, NY Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Kirkus Reviews
Using his lyrical voice, Paulsen (Alida's Song, 1999, etc.) presents a true-to-life, thinly veiled biographical portrait of a boy's 16th year. This boy (all that Paulsen names him) runs away from his alcoholic mother when she makes sexual advances toward him and he finds a job thinning beets for North Dakota farmers. He befriends the Mexicans with whom he works, and learns how they make their hard lives bearable with friendship and the simple pleasures of food and music. When offered a steady summer job by one farmer, he takes it because he's attracted to the farmer's daughter. He never spends his money and accumulates hundreds of dollars, all of which a sheriff's deputy takes. Hitchhiking to escape from the deputy, he eventually signs on with a traveling carnival and learns how to fleece the rubes. The book ends with an account of his first sexual experience. Paulsen's simple prose gives the story a dream-like quality that smoothes the edges of its harsher events. It's the truth of memory rather than unrelenting realism, although the truth of the events comes through. The sexual content may make the book inappropriate for less mature readers, but it's essentially an optimistic, coming-of-age story and a new take on the life of this popular author. (Fiction. 12-15)

From the Publisher
Gary Paulsen tells the raw truth of a boy’s first summer on his own, “as real,” he says, “as I can write it.”

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Product Details

Random House Children's Books
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2 MB
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14 - 17 Years

Read an Excerpt


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.


From the Paperback edition.

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