Rural towns and wide-open fields have proved fertile material for horror stories for decades. What moves in the corn? Nothing good, probably. But in Ann Fraistat’s What We Harvest, it’s what’s underground—what’s in the very soil—that you have to watch out for.
The farmland that 16-year-old Wren’s family has worked for the last six generations is magical, with acres of iridescent wheat waving in the breeze. The other three old-stock farms in the Hollow’s End have similar charm, with annual bumper crops of silver-veined melons, golden yams, and red horses and dogs that can’t be beat. But that magic is in danger from a blight that looks like mercury but kills plants and turns people and animals into a hoard of silvery zombie-like creatures. On the afternoon that Wren finds the blight has hit her land at last, she tries to remove the affected plants herself and is exposed to the blight in the process. Worse, her parents went to a neighboring farm and she can’t contact them. The only person she can call to help now is the last person she wants to see: her ex-boyfriend, Derek.
Derek has lost enough to the blight himself. Besides his family’s prize melon crop withering, his father disappeared into the blight-ridden woods months ago and hasn’t been seen since. Everyone in Hollow’s End has lost a lot, and with the rate the blight is progressing, it won’t take long to lose what little is left. The silvery hoard made up of what was once their friends and family draws near, and Wren and Derek have to put aside their differences to figure out where the blight is coming from and how to stop it before it’s too late. But time is running short: As a generations-old mystery unfolds, Wren notices the mottled gray blight growing on her, too.
Fraistat writes in her acknowledgements that she spent her childhood with her nose stuffed in R. L. Stein books, and that influence does ripple throughout What We Harvest. As a fellow former Goosebumps reader, this is a compliment. The dread starts early and doesn’t let up, though things do end on a considerably happier note. If I had to imagine what a Goosebumps would look like as a YA book that had more time to develop and polish than the punishing pace the Scholastic et al overlords demanded of their authors, it would be exactly What We Harvest, and I loved it for it.
That pacing (and the whole thing with the zombies and peril) does mean that What We Harvest is not a book for relaxing. There are no long and languid passages to get lost in, no deep character insights to make in the midst of significant change. That said, there’s a powerful sense of self from Wren. She knows who she is and that identity grows straight out of the dirt beneath her feet. She’ll do whatever it takes—and she means it—to save her farm. Although the source of her farm’s troubles is supernatural, it’s not so foreign to the struggles many small family farms have had for years. Her herculean efforts may not bring about a miraculous turnaround for her farm, but her success and dedication is heartening.
Fraistat has said her inspiration for What We Harvest comes in part from a feeling of displacement after a recent move of several states, and that longing for home—and complication of what, exactly, home and belonging can mean—is heartily present here. As a farm kid, though, the generational nature of working the same patch of land as your grandparents and their grandparents was striking, too. The story of how my family got our land five generations ago is as well known to us as Wren’s is to all of Hollow’s End, but time has a way of both obscuring and revealing truth. Stories of intergenerational trauma are compelling, but What We Harvest is more one of intergenerational responsibility.
Maybe we didn’t sow the seeds now ripening to harvest, Fraistat reminds us, but we are responsible for that harvest—and what we choose to do with it.