cover image The Beet Fields: Memories of a Sixteenth Summer

The Beet Fields: Memories of a Sixteenth Summer

Gary Paulsen. Delacorte Press Books for Young Readers, $15.95 (176pp) ISBN 978-0-385-32647-6

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.)