01 December 2011

Rediscovering The Lost Farm

The Lost Farm by Jane Louise Curry is a really strange book. Especially by today’s standards, but also by the prevailing standards when it was published in 1974.

The cover painting is an accurate depiction of an important scene near the end of the story. You might think that young readers are supposed to identify with the blond boy. But no, the book’s central character is the little old bearded farmer, yelling at the boy to get off his lawn.

The Lost Farm begins with that character as a boy named Pete living in rural Pennsylvania in the 1920s. His ne’er-do-well junk-dealer father is about to yank him out of school so he can do more work around the farm. Curry thus sets up a clear conflict. She also describes the rural setting in poetic language at a length possible in the early 1970s but no longer.

The book takes a turn into fantasy as Pete discovers a village that’s been miniaturized, with a few mini-people trapped in it—including a spunky girl about his age. Pete promises to help her escape the man who’s done this to her town and restore her to her proper size. Another clear conflict, and the promise of some adventure.

Then the villain miniaturizes Pete’s farm, leaving him six inches tall. He’s stuck on that isolated landscape with his useless father, spunky grandmother, and livestock. The physics of all this are unclear, but Curry’s descriptions of the family’s new setting are once again vivid. And we have yet another conflict: never mind school, put aside the girl—how will Pete rescue himself?

Well, he doesn’t. His mule dies. His father dies. He builds a horseless carriage, but it doesn’t achieve anything. His grandmother dies. Pete grows old on the little lost farm, somehow surviving predatory wildlife, lack of supplies, winters, disease, and every other threat. Eventually he’s a lonely sexagenarian. Because that’s what kids want to read about.

In the end other people rescue Pete, including the boy on the cover, whom we’ve never seen before. It turns out that the spunky girl was restored to her natural size decades before. There’s a thin connection between her and Pete’s rescuers, but this plot resolution basically arrives as a deus ex machina. In sum, The Lost Farm breaks nearly every “rule” of creating a satisfying story for modern children. Or for this adult.


Greg R. Fishbone said...

Does it tie into THE MYSTERIOUS SHRINKING HOUSE? Your description reminded me of reading this book as a kid and, what do you know, same author. I foggily remember the protagonist of TMSH as a spunky girl who manages to escape from a shrunken town after banding up with other tiny people to defeat the story's villain...

J. L. Bell said...

We probably read the same copy from the same library!

Although Jane Louise Curry wrote both The Lost Farm and The Mysterious Shrinking House (also known as Mindy’s Mysterious Miniature, there doesn’t seem to be any connection between their fantasy worlds.

Mindy gets shrunk when she finds a doll house in her attic, according to the descriptions I’ve found. The people in The Lost Farm are shrunk by a scientist who’s both mad and angry. They appear to take place in different decades.