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Michelle HoutsAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Joe Torre

“When Mr. and Mrs. Jim Darling named their first daughter Precious the whole town wanted to puke.” That line from The Beef Princess of Practical County came to me long before the rest of the story. I grew up in a word-loving environment....read more
When Mr. and Mrs. Jim Darling named their first daughter Precious the whole town wanted to puke.” That line from The Beef Princess of Practical County came to me long before the rest of the story. I grew up in a word-loving environment. My father is the king of puns, spoonerisms, and wordplay. The idea of a character named Precious Darling was intriguing. Would she be precious? Or darling? Of course not. Life rarely works out that way. Precious Darling and her equally ironically named sisters stuck with me and begged me to write about them. (Of course they did. They’re that vain!) Other characters I write about have more realistic roots. Libby, the main character in the story, is a cross between several strong young people I’ve known over the years. Frannie, Libby’s little sister, is very much like a precocious and always-entertaining young lady who is growing up my house.

I’ve spent the second half my life-so-far on a farm. I grew up with farming relatives, but my family and I lived in the suburbs. I spent a lot of summer days visiting my cousin’s dairy farm, searching the haymow for new kittens and learning to walk barefooted in manure. I didn’t always love the farm animals. I used to have nightmares about huge Holstein cows walking up my driveway. When I went to college and met the farmer of my dreams, I knew I’d have to face my animal fears head on. Those big, old steers can still make me take a step backwards (away from their back end), but I’ve grown to respect them.

I’m always so impressed when I watch young people with their livestock at a county fair. The level of maturity, the amount of time and energy, and the physical nature of the work they do are amazing. (Not to mention, it’s just a dirty and sometimes stinky job to clean up after farm animals.) But there is nothing quite like auction night. The lights, the auctioneer’s booming song, the ringman’s yelping call to signal a bid, the pacing animals in the ring, and most of all, the youngsters at the other end of the lead rope. The emotions on their faces are as mixed as the feelings in their hearts. Pride. They’ve raised an outstanding, functional animal. Excitement. It’s the night they’ve worked for all year. Heartbreak. In minutes, it’ll be over. It will be time to say goodbye.

When I wrote about this in The Beef Princess of Practical County, my editor asked me what I suppose anyone who hasn’t experienced farm life would ask. Why? Why do the kids do it again and again if it’s such a painful life experience? That was my challenge in completing the book. How will Libby face the auction ring? Will she even face it at all? Writing is about living, and living is about growing and making decisions that ring true to your own beliefs. Libby may have faced some of the toughest decisions she ever had to make, but she always remained true to herself. Even in the presence of the dreaded, ditzy Darling sisters. And that’s no bull!

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