78 pages • 2 hours readGary Paulsen
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Drawing on his childhood experiences, Gary Paulsen’s novel for young readers, Harris and Me: A Summer Remembered (1993, 1st edition), contains 12 vignettes chronicling the narrator’s visit to his distant relatives on a farm over one summer. In addition to the culture shock of adjusting to rural life, the book also centers on the narrator’s relationship with his reckless and adventurous country cousin, Harris, and the process of finding acceptance as part of a family. Many events in the novel mirror Paulsen’s own childhood, and the novel is considered a semi-autobiographical memoir. Harris and Me received the South Carolina Book Award for Young Adult Book Award (1997), and the Iowa Teen Award (1997).
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Harris and Me is written in the first person from the perspective of the protagonist, an 11-year-old boy who moves from home to home as the result of neglectful, alcoholic parents. This pattern lands him on the Larson family farm, deep in the wilderness and far from the city he’s accustomed to. A deputy drives him to the farm, dropping him off with a suitcase. The Larson women, Glennis and Clair, are eager to meet him. Harris is even more eager, forward, and ready to pull the protagonist head-on into farm life. The protagonist is to share a room with his cousin Harris, and Harris reveals his nature immediately when he shows the protagonist how to inflate frogs to watch them float.
The first morning, the protagonist and the Larsons sit down to breakfast. Knute, the father, and Louie, the farmhand, are present. The protagonist watches in awe as Knute consumes nothing but coffee while Louie consumes four stacks of pancakes whole. Glennis, the daughter, and Clair, the mother, are busy cooking. Harris drags the protagonist outside before the first light and introduces him to cigarettes. They go to find the cows and bring them in, but being naïve to the cows’ nature, the protagonist receives a kick in the head. He wakes up to the sounds of Harris and Clair discussing what happened. The protagonist is mildly injured, and Harris plays it off. Clair offers the protagonist some pie, and then Harris continues showing him around the farm. He tells the protagonist about Ernie the aggressive rooster and discusses how to separate cow’s milk.
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Harris and the protagonist play war. They pretend the pigs are enemies and sneak up on them, jumping on their backs and wailing. The pigs throw them off into a pile of excrement. Harris laughs, and when the protagonist realizes how ridiculous the situation is, he joins in laughing, too. He decides he will follow Harris no matter what, and the loyalty between the boys is official. After this, they wash off in the nearby river. Knute announces at the lunch table that it is time to mow the fields, and Harris is alight with excitement. He explains that they will get to catch mice and sell them to Louie. Confused, the protagonist tags along. Knute leads the horses out, and Buzzer the lynx jumps on for the ride. They arrive at the field and begin catching mice. Harris keeps all his mice to sell to Louie, which the protagonist later finds out Louie uses to sew coats for his miniatures. The protagonist keeps some mice, but he lets Buzzer eat most of them. When they come back, Harris explains that Buzzer got his name by killing an old farm dog. The protagonist learns that the Larsons accept all, regardless of their flaws.
As the weeks pass, the protagonist gets used to the farm lifestyle. Every day the boys wake up before dawn, compete for breakfast, work the farm, eat again, play, and find trouble. The protagonist shows Harris a Tarzan comic, and Harris is inspired. Harris ties a rope to the top of the granary and attempts to use it to swing down to the river. He swings back and forth, and suddenly Ernie the rooster jumps on him. The two are flying back and bump into the protagonist. All three land in the pig pen.
In Chapter 7, the Larson family takes a trip to town. The day starts normally, with Harris and the protagonist playing Cowboys and Indians using arrows they fashion out of willow bark and a butcher knife. They shoot at the pigs and chickens, missing or slightly maiming them. Harris accidentally shoots Buzzer, who attacks him. Clair then announces that the family will be going to town. The protagonist has big visions of what town will be like, but he finds it is just four buildings and a grain elevator. One of these buildings is Lumberjack Lownje, where the family spends the evening. The establishment serves alcohol along with orange pop for the kids, and the Larsons each go their own way: Knute and Louie to the bar, Clair and Glennis to socialize, and Harris takes the protagonist to the room where the movie will be shown. It is a half-missing projection of a Gene Autry movie. The kids are in awe, despite having seen it many times. The protagonist eventually gets bored and goes to watch the adults mingle. He falls asleep, and when he wakes up, Knute is carrying him to the truck to drive him home.
The next day, the protagonist and Harris try to act out a scene from the Gene Autrey movie. Harris concocts a plan to tie a rope to the top of the granary and swing onto the horses and ride off. The protagonist is skeptical but agrees. When the boys are getting ready to swing, the protagonist holds back, but Harris follows through. Bill the horse bucks him off. Harris goes flying backwards but is unharmed. A week later, the boys make another attempt at imitating Gene Autry. Harris suggests the protagonist grab his cap gun, and Harris pulls out a rifle. The protagonist is shocked but goes ahead with the plan. The boys climb up on Bill and ride around, shooting their guns at trees. Harris unwittingly shoots a live round, which spooks Bill and sends the boys flying. Harris drops the gun, and Bill tramples it. Harris insists that the protagonist take the blame, fearing punishment. The protagonist successfully fools the family, but he feels guilty.
The boys spend the next week separating and packing hay. Harris spots a fever tick and decides the cows need washed. The cows comply and jump in and out of the solution that Knute sets up, but the bull refuses and runs away. In the process, he tramples Harris. Harris appears to be dead, and his family gathers around him. Knute punches the bull to get him to run the other way, and Glennis begs Harris to stay alive. Harris opens his eyes and asks what happened. The incident leaves Harris in bed for two days, and the protagonist takes over his workload. Totally exhausted, he demands that Harris return to work on day three.
The Larsons return to the town, and the protagonist spots a beautiful girl. She approaches him, and Harris intentionally foils the protagonist’s chances. The protagonist takes revenge on Harris by daring him to pee on an electrical fence in exchange for two pornographic pictures. Harris electrocutes himself. When the protagonist gives Harris the photos, Louie walks up and snatches them from his hand. In the final weeks of summer, the boys perform one last experiment: Using the motor from Clair’s washing machine, Harris attaches it to an old bike to turn it into a motorbike. The protagonist goes to look at Louie’s miniatures again. He discovers that Louie added a miniature for each member of the family, including himself. He feels that he has finally been accepted into a family, and he breaks down in tears. The boys wait until the next day when nobody is home to try out the bike. The speed is uncontrollable, and Harris goes full speed into the bushes.
The last chapter of the novel opens with Harris and the protagonist playing GI Joe in the corn field. The deputy drives up, and they realize what is happening. The protagonist gathers his things and leaves. Harris assures him he can come back, and the Larsons are sad to see him go. The protagonist knows where he belongs now, and the novel ends as he drives away, reflecting on his summer with Harris and the Larsons.
By Gary Paulsen