A Review of What We Harvest by Ann Fraistat
Words By Gina Gruss
Published March 22, 2022 by Delacorte Press.
“What good is a legacy if it’s always been a lie?”
What We Harvest by Ann Fraistat is, first and foremost, tight. It’s limited to one all-American town, Hollow’s End, a handful of key characters, one primary plot that the primary character needs to solve, and one major subplot (as well as smaller issues and character dynamics). There are other unsolved mysteries and questions—but they’re not distractions. This story is constrained, clipped—and it works. The format is refreshing, especially when most YA books are a series. This story is a one-and-done, a quick read.
Hollow’s End feels like a fully realized, all-American town with lots of farmland, familial pride, history, and strange fruit. There are the ghost melons, which glow blue; the rainbow wheat, which, when baked into unicorn braid bread, tastes like a variety of different fruits and vegetables, which are also Wren’s, the main character’s, family crop. There is magic in the soil—the crops are unnatural; their effects, nothing short of supernatural. I’m sure their taste is (literally) magical, too. The magic turns sour in the Quicksilver Blight. It’s a lovely twist on the idea of magic being ethereal: instead, it’s carnal and physical.
Tourists come, and in flashbacks, we get a sense of how the town was once, and what it’s since become. The Quicksilver Blight, the strange sap that leaks from the ground, has turned animals and people into zombie-like creatures. The crops are dead. The town quarantines, severed from the rest of the world. Strange government officials are investigating it. Nothing changes. Life has been leached from the ground, and it’s up to Wren to save it while learning about the town’s, and her family’s, past in the process.
Legacy is one of What We Harvest’s primary themes. Family ties, ancestors. Their farms. Their history. Wren is a sixteen-year-old girl who cares deeply for her ex-boyfriend (whom she may not yet be over), Derek. She’s tethered to her family, the farm, and, of course, her dog. She learns of the dark secrets of her family history—and reading it, I found parallels back to America’s stolen and scrubbed histories, the farms built over indigenous peoples’ lands; the things taken, not received. While the story doesn’t develop the true horrors within legacy enough to me, it leans into it—and in a fantastically strange way.
Wren is a great character. She’s young but has matured quickly. She isn’t spectacular, isn’t a genius or a supernaturally gifted girl—she is, rather, persistent. Her resilience and care are what keep her going, which I adore. She feels fully realized, understood—she grapples with questions about the future. She’s also still full of feelings for her ex, Derek—he’s a sweet, strong guy who was very communicative and loving. Their relationship is the B-plot, and I thought it was a great compliment to the very heavy A-plot, the Quicksilver Blight. Other characters, like Derek’s sister, Claudette, and her girlfriend, Angie, stole my heart too. Claudette is rough-n’-tough; Angie softens her up. The parents also play a role, and they all deal with loss in different capacities, different ways. I wonder if this book changed through COVID-19. The Quicksilver Blight, the idea of anyone being contagious; those themes run parallel to everyday life in the pandemic, and What We Harvest carries those themes realistically and well.
This book has a pulse. It’s alive (or perhaps undead-ish, like the blight of Hollow’s End), and jerks between visceral, tense action and necessary slow moments for character development. Those places where you catch your breath. It’s well-balanced, well-constructed. Things continually get worse, and worse, and worse. I genuinely had my mouth open for a few parts. This story gets truly, and meaningfully, horrifying. I shuddered, I feared, and I loved every moment of it.
“Every person, every animal we’d lost was down there right now. Blight seeping into their every inch.
Melting them into more of itself.
If I went in, no way would it be me that crawled back out.”
Fraistat’s lyrical writing is why the book remains in my mind like an echo, even after I’ve set it down. It’s cinematic—she doesn’t skimp on the drama or the details. Again, the pulse: long and short sentences, gorgeously horrifying details. If you’re not a fan of gore, I would suggest staying away. If you love horror that gets down to the guts, literally, this is the novel for you. The writing is never dull; Fraistat truly takes advantage of every sentence. She crafts the world through her writing, having a great sense of where and how to stop. The lyrical style lends itself to magical realism as well.
My primary gripes? The conflicts settle a bit too easily for convenience’s sake, since Wren is such a driven person. While the conflicts’ resolutions underlined the importance of familial and interpersonal relationships, I wish that Wren was the one to coax the solutions out, rather than for them to have come to her. It’d give her more agency and establish her as an even stronger character because of her spirit. Lastly, the ending is rushed—satisfying, yes, but it feels like it’s gone too fast. The book had built tension up so well; I wanted that cinematic ending. I wanted the cooldown to be a bit longer, to take its time out of the blight, the ending, and into what happens later.
I also wish that we could learn more of the town’s past, since What We Harvest interrogates legacy. I’d love to see more of the past of the town, the family, and to understand more of the magic as well. Not to explain it, but just to envelop me into it. As it stands, the magic still feels too distant and underdeveloped. I want to see more of it in action since it was one of the weirdest and most fascinating elements of the story.
(Also, I want to try their unicorn braid. I’ll take a lightly toasted slice, please.)
This book is a fantastic debut, satisfies and surpasses my expectations for a weird, wild, and exciting horror story. With a cast of well-developed characters, gorgeous writing, fascinating world, and strong themes, it’s easy to slip into and hard to disconnect from. It is a standalone piece (or seems to be so); I’m glad it’s on its own. It is satisfying in a way that any piece with sequels can’t be. Unearth this book and see just how fast quicksilver can spread.