Elizabeth Angier is a fourth-grader who lives on a farm. She helps her parents weed the large vegetable garden, dye skeins of wool from their sheep, arrange wildflowers into bouquets to be sold at the farmers' market, and water the saplings that landscapers buy. Will, the high school boy from the dairy farm over the hill, comes over to help her dad on occasion. Elizabeth loves everything about growing up on the farm that has been in her father's family for many generations. But all this threatens to change: a company that runs "CAFO" (Concentrated Feeding Animal Organizations) pig farms arrives to woo struggling farmers into selling their farms and taking jobs with the large corporation. As Elizabeth's parents desperately research the effects of existing CAFO's on a community's air, water, commerce, and quality of life, Elizabeth herself discovers her own connection to the earth and the powers that gives her. Gaia, the spirit of the Earth, appears to her as an otter, and begins to teach her.
That's just a brief synopsis of Gaia Girls: Enter the Earth, recent winner of the 2006 National Outdoor Book Award, children's division. Although this is a fantastical novel that author Lee Welles has written for children ("ages 9 and up"), many parts of the story ring true for communities like ours. Gaia Girls: Enter the Earth takes place on a farm in upstate New York, near the Finger Lakes. Much of it reads like home, the beauty as well as the struggles.
Although I consider myself sympathetic to environmental activists, I am leary of being lumped in with folks who wear hemp and eat vegetarian because it's trendy. In sitting down to read Gaia Girls, I was a little afraid that the story would be heavy-handed on earth goddesses but skim over the true difficulties of living environmentally-aware. I am pleased to report I couldn't have been more wrong. "Three Oaks Farm" is an organic farm, but Welles makes it clear that this makes the Angier family and their products unusual for their community. They need to be very creative to be successful: they advertise their organic produce to upscale restaurants, who pre-order from the farm. Another way they make money is by selling many different products: wool, vegetables, flowers, young trees, honey. Though Elizabeth and her parents feel they live a happy life in a corner of paradise, Welles doesn't flinch from showing how fragile that existence is, and how much work it takes to maintain it.
Welles' writing is strong. At the beginning, I was reminded of Charlotte's Web. As I continued to read Gaia Girls, I realized I was in the middle of a wonderful new literary phenomenon. I see this book, and the series to follow, touching many as it touched me. Enter the Earth reminded me of environmental issues and earth science facts that I already know about, but made me feel more attached to them. Without being preachy, Gaia Girls helps the reader see the science behind farming methods that are good for the earth, and how it is healthy for the people who live there and those of us who eat the food grown there. With Elizabeth, we can connect to the farm, as she and the farm connect to the earth. I raced through the book, loved the story, and can't wait for more.
Author of "Hobo Finds A Home" and editor of "A Predatory Heart"