Gary Paulsen

Harris and Me

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Harris and Me Summary

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Drawing on his childhood experiences, Gary Paulsen’s chapter book for young readers, Harris and Me: A Summer Remembered (1993), contains a number of vignettes chronicling the narrator’s visit to his relatives on a farm during the course of one summer. In addition to the culture shock of a city kid adjusting to rural life, the book also centers on the narrator’s relationship with his reckless and adventurous country cousin, Harris.

It is the early 1950s, and the eleven-year-old narrator—who is the “me” of the book’s title but is never specifically named throughout the course of the book—has an unhappy home life. His parents are both alcoholics (“puke drunks,” as he calls them), and they routinely send him to live with various relatives and friends in different parts of the country. He has stayed with a handful of uncles, a grandmother, and even an ultra-religious Norwegian farmer. Eventually, his parents send him to the country for the summer to live with the Larsons, distant relatives he has never met. The Larsons only live forty miles north of where the narrator and his parents currently reside, but “it might as well have been on a different planet.” Because of his parents’ dysfunction, a sheriff’s deputy escorts the narrator to the Larson’s farm. On the drive out, the buildings and busyness of city life first give way to open fields, then nature envelops the car: green trees tight on all sides, seemingly endless forest lined with dirt paths, and branches entwined over the road.

The car pulls into the Larson farm, and the narrator meets his second uncle, Knute, Knute’s wife, Clair, and his second cousins, fourteen-year-old Glennis and nine-year-old Harris. Harris immediately attempts to exert control over this new arrival to the household. He dictates to the narrator which bed to sleep in, and then arbitrarily changes his mind, forcing the narrator to switch beds. This sets the stage for a summer of hijinks, with Harris in the driver’s seat.

Soon the narrator meets the other characters on the farm. Louie is a toothless farmhand who sleeps in the barn and swallows his food whole. He is also an accomplished woodcarver; he makes a small sculpture of the narrator and gives it to him as a gift. Buzzer is a lynx that Louie found and decided to raise as a pet. Vivian is a large, temperamental cow who does not like being touched or milked; at their first meeting, she promptly kicks the narrator in the head. Ernie is an angry rooster who enjoys hiding from Harris, then leaping out to violently attack him. As for his second uncle and aunt, the narrator finds that Knute hardly ever speaks, but he consumes an inordinate amount of coffee. Aunt Clair mostly takes on the role of cook for the family.

As the summer unfolds, Harris introduces the narrator to the wilder side of life. Harris swears more than most adults, compelling Glennis to slap him every time she hears a foul word leave his lips. Even the intensive labor of working on the farm, a big part of how the boys spend their days, is not enough to quell Harris’s boundless energy or devil-may-care attitude.

Wholly unprepared for the adventures Harris foists upon the both of them, the narrator quickly learns that where Harris goes, trouble inevitably follows. Among other things, there is trouble with two horses the narrator finds to be as towering and intimidating as dinosaurs. There’s trouble with an out-of-control bike that has been automated with a washing machine motor. There’s trouble with smoking when Harris offers the narrator a cigarette—producing coughing, vomiting, and an instant aversion.

Despite this penchant for trouble, Harris worms his way into the narrator’s good graces. By the end of the summer, the narrator has come to consider his cousin a friend, and Harris’s parents and sister have earned the narrator’s respect. However, just as he is settling in and feeling a sense of family and kinship with his relatives, just as he’s finding the elusive stable home for which he has always yearned, the narrator is again uprooted by his parents.

The novel closes with a letter from Harris to the narrator. He is lonely on the farm without his cousin. The narrator, too, feels that pang of loneliness, missing Harris and the carefree summer days in the country—and the unlikely home and family he found there.

The recipient of numerous honors, Harris and Me remains a popular book for younger readers. It was an ALA Best Book for Young Adults, an ALA Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers, a Booklist Editors’ Choice, an NCTE Notable Children’s Trade Book in the Language Arts, and an entry on the New York Public Library’s list 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing. In a 2007 National Education Association poll, it ranked number sixty-five on the list of Teachers’ Top 100 Books for Children.