Susan Johnson’s Low Hanging Fruit is far more than another coming-of-age story about a young girl. And trust me, it is no goody-goody book with a happy ending. It is the very realistic — at times almost uncomfortably realistic — story of a teenage girl dealing with her parents’ divorce, mother’s illness, and discovering her own sexuality.
Erica Tambo is fifteen in 1980 when her mother, ten-year old sister Ellie, and she move to Leavenworth, Washington, a touristy Bavarian town two hours away from their previous home in the Seattle area. Erica’s parents divorced after her mother developed breast cancer and her father couldn’t deal with her mother’s illness. Now her father is getting remarried, while Erica, her mother, and her sister begin a new and impoverished life.
Nothing about Erica’s new life is desirable. Her mother cannot find work. They live in a small trailer. Erica manages to make friends, but not always the most desirable ones. Her cousin Katie, a senior, looks out for her at first, and Erica develops a friendship with Lacy, but when Erica also becomes friends with Jenna, Lacy soon drops her as a friend. Jenna is perceived as a bad girl in the school, being promiscuous, smoking marijuana, and living alone for extended periods while her father is traveling. Erica becomes Jenna’s friend, however, because Jenna is caring for her father’s horses while he is away, and she agrees to give Erica riding lessons in exchange for Erica helping her to care for the horses. But this friendship soon puts Erica in precarious situations where she needs to make difficult choices.
Erica is also beginning to discover boys, but the boy she likes seems uninterested in her, and another boy only wants to take advantage of her. Erica has also been warned about the pervert teacher in the school she tries to avoid. In fact, Erica has no male role model in her life — her father is completely absent, save for inviting her to his wedding, only to ignore her. Erica doesn’t even have a reliable adult to talk to. While her mother tries to be a good parent and provider, her former illness, the divorce, and the job she eventually finds, with its demanding and mean boss, drains her so that she is always tired. To my surprise, she doesn’t even object to Erica staying over at Jenna’s house. Erica’s mother seems to have all she can do to get by so Erica is largely left on her own.
Finally, a couple of Erica’s teachers take a positive interest in her, and Erica writes an essay to enter in a contest for a college scholarship. She ends up writing a disguised story about Jenna, perhaps trying to make some sense out of Jenna’s life. I won’t give away the book’s conclusion, but it’s fair to say Erica will discover she has more in common with Jenna than she initially realized.
Johnson’s style is fast-paced, the story moving along quickly over the course of a school year. I admire Johnson’s realism and refusal to sugarcoat anything in this novel. I found I could relate to Erica in many ways, since we all desire love, but also because Erica loves to read the classics like I do, and I grew up in roughly the same time period she did. I appreciated many of the popular culture references to books, movies, television, songs, and events from 1980-81. The poverty and the emotional turmoil Erica deals with make the story quite dark, but never to the point where I wanted to quit reading. Nor could I have predicted the ending. In fact, Low Hanging Fruit is one of those books that closes with you wondering just how such an ending could be possible, and yet, it seems the only possible ending. I was left wanting more, wanting to know what happens next to Erica, wanting to know she will make it in life. It is rare when a book has that kind of power.
Low Hanging Fruit offers what turns out to be an unusual and unexpected story. I think it would be insightful for many, especially teenagers who are just beginning to learn about the hard realities of life, but also adults — in fact, I think I actually appreciated the story even more than I would have when I was fifteen. I felt haunted by it long after I finished.
For more information about Susan Johnson and Low Hanging Fruit, visit the author’s website.