Reading Buena Coburn Carlson’s memoir “Farm Girl” felt like I was sitting with my grandparents listening to them reminisce about their childhoods on the farm.
There are a few moments in the book that make me question whether Carlson grew up with my grandmother and shared farm life with her: getting stuck in trees while waiting for a herd of cows to pass, the mean streak that chickens have for the children who have to collect their eggs, and the attempts at drying laundry outside during a below-freezing day were some of the stories I've heard before.
When I first picked up “Farm Girl” I assumed that it would be a chronological story of Carlson’s life; her first memories on the farm to when she eventually moved away after graduating from high school. However, Carlson creates chapters based on themes: “long underwear,” “ironing,” and “learning to read” are some of the many short essays that offer snapshots of Carlson’s young life.
While the book is broken into chapters by theme there are numerous ideas that reappear throughout the memoir. One of my favorites is the image of Carlson’s family sitting together under a white pine and enjoying the evening. Carlson writes:
“On summer evenings when the chores were done and daylight still lingered, we sat under the pine, Mother and Dad talking and the fours kids half listening, half thinking about the day, sometimes just bothering each other. The boys in their bib overalls belly-flopped on the grass. The girls, being older, often sat together, a little apart from the boys. Gradually the soft farm sounds stopped, and evening darkness wrapped itself like a blanket around our family. Dad smoked his last pipe of the day. We lighted the kerosene lamps and drifted off to bed.”
While I have never lived on a farm, Carlson’s ability to describe scenes like this make me long for lingering summer nights and relaxed moments spent with my family outside; Carlson makes her readers homesick for a home that they never actually inhabited.
One of my favorite things about this book is its raw writing style. “Farm Girl” frequently feels more like a journal or letter written to a friend than a published book. Neighbors and extended family members appear throughout the chapters, family drama is hinted at and embarrassing moments are disclosed as though Carlson is talking with someone whom she loves.
The thing that made the memoir come alive for me was a collection of family photos in the center of the book.
As a reader it is easy for me to forget that the individuals in memoirs are real people who led full lives. Carlson’s inclusion of photos of her family and neighbors help me to connect with the story. Carlson also includes images of what Plum City looked like in the 1930s. The village was only two streets that were sprinkled with businesses.
While “Farm Girl” focuses on the 1930s and 1940s it is eerily timely for the pandemic that we are experiencing. Carlson again and again returns to the economic and environmental hardships that people experienced during the Great Depression and how they were eventually overcome:
“The hope, the can-do spirit, and the determination not to give up were the principles that produced a generation of strong, determined, innovative women and men.”