Susan Johnson’s Low Hanging Fruit is much more than just another coming-of-age story about a girl. And trust me, it’s not a good book with a happy ending. It is the very realistic, sometimes almost uncomfortably realistic story of a teenage girl dealing with her parents’ divorce, her mother’s illness, and discovering her own sexuality.
Erica Tambo was fifteen years old in 1980 when she and her mother, her ten-year-old sister Ellie, moved to Leavenworth, Washington, a Bavarian resort town two hours from their previous home in the Seattle area. Erica’s parents divorced after her mother developed breast cancer and her father was unable to cope with her mother’s illness. Now her father is remarrying, while Erica, her mother and her sister start a new and impoverished life.
Nothing about Erica’s new life is desirable. His mother cannot find a job. They live in a small trailer. Erica manages to make friends, but not always the most desirable ones. Her cousin Katie, a senior, takes care of her at first, and Erica develops a friendship with Lacy, but when Erica also befriends Jenna, Lacy soon leaves her as a friend. Jenna is perceived as a bad girl at school, promiscuous, smoking marijuana and living alone for long periods while her father travels. However, Erica becomes friends with Jenna because Jenna is taking care of her father’s horses while he is away, and agrees to give Erica riding lessons in exchange for Erica helping her take care of the horses. But this friendship soon puts Erica in precarious situations where she needs to make tough decisions.
Erica is starting to discover guys too, but the guy she likes seems disinterested in her and another guy just wants to take advantage of her. Erica has also been warned about the perverted teacher at school that she’s trying 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 trusted adult to talk to because while her mother tries to be a good mother and provider, her previous illness, divorce, and the job she finally finds, where she has a demanding and petty boss, exhausts her. so she’s always tired and, to my surprise, she’s not even opposed to Erica staying at Jenna’s; Erica’s mother seems to have everything she can do to survive, so Erica is left alone.
Eventually a couple of Erica’s teachers take a positive interest in her, and Erica even writes an essay to enter a contest for a college scholarship. She ends up writing a story in disguise about Jenna, perhaps trying to find some meaning in Jenna’s life. I won’t reveal the conclusion of the book, but it’s fair to say that Erica will find that she has more in common with Jenna than she initially realized.
Johnson’s style is fast-paced, the story progressing rapidly over the course of a school year. I admire Johnson’s realism and his refusal to sugarcoat anything in this novel. I found that I could relate to Erica in many ways, since we all want love, but also because Erica loves to read the classics as I do, and I grew up in about the same time frame as her, so I appreciated many of the popular. Cultural references to books, movies, television, songs, and events from 1980 to 1981. The poverty and emotional turmoil Erica faces make the story quite dark, but never to the point where she wanted to stop reading. Nor could he have predicted the end; in fact, Low Hanging Fruit is one of those books that closes with the question of how such an ending could be possible and yet it seems like the only possible ending. I was left wanting more, wanting to know what happens with Erica, wanting to know that she will achieve it in life. It’s rare for a book to have that kind of power.
Low Hanging Fruit delivers what turns out to be an unusual and unexpected story. I think it would be revealing for many, especially teenagers who are just beginning to learn about the harsh realities of life, but also for adults; in fact, I think I really appreciated the story even more than I would have when I was fifteen. I was haunted by it long after I finished.