Thursday, June 25th, 2009
Book Review: A Day’s Work
A year ago I wouldn’t have given any thought to A Day’s Work by Eve Bunting, a children’s picture book. A cursory glance at the cover art and flipping the pages indicates a story about the immigrant experience of day laborers in the southwest US. Oh, but it’s so much more.
Now, here’s a back history disclaimer. I don’t begrudge these folks, legal or illegal, doing hard labor that most others refuse, and certainly understand their wish for a better life.
But I never really gave much thought about these people, nor considered them something to teach my daughter about, aside from a brief conversation on César Chávez Day.
Then this spring we decided our 4-year-old daughter would attend a language immersion elementary school where instructors teach half the day in English and Spanish the other half. [I'll spare you the bilingual-education-rocks talk.]
Now, day laborers are not a topic I planned to cover when supplementing her education. They’re not representative of the peoples of Central and South America, but are a highly visible and abused class of people in the US who happen to speak Spanish.
And given that, in my 85% white community, she may be exposed to racist reactions to Latinos, hey, better I educate her now than she be blindsided by cromags getting pissy because she’s bilingual, or worse, has non-white friends.
Alright, so here’s how this book, A Day’s Work, surprised me. And yes, spoilers follow.
The tale begins with what those of us who don’t live in the southwest have come to know through Hollywood films… a pickup truck stops at dawn by a bunch of loitering men and the driver holds up three fingers. He needs three men for bricklaying. Then he drives off with those lucky enough to get a space in the truck.
This story, though, is about a young boy and his grandfather looking for work — the boy is there because it’s Saturday. The boy’s father recently died and the grandfather has come to America to help the family.
The next vehicle to pull up is a van. The driver wants one man for gardening. The boy, Francisco, says:
“Take us. [...] My grandfather is a fine gardener, though he doesn’t know English yet. The gardens are the same, right? Mexican and American? Also, you will get two for one. I don’t charge for my work.”
The pitch works and the boy agrees to a day’s labor for $60 (in 1994 dollars).
Inside the van, the boy tells Grampa what’s happening and this exchange takes place:
“It is gardening.”
“But I do not know gardening. I am a carpenter. I have always lived in the city.”
“It is easy. Flowers, roses, things like that.”
The job turns out to be weeding a plot on a small hillside. The driver leaves, promising to return at the end of the day.
During the weeding, Francisco fantasizes about the dinner they’ll afford with such good pay. They stop for a lunch break, eating what they brought with them, and handily finish before the driver returns.
Now here’s the twist. The driver is immediately angry, slamming his cap on the van. The two had spent the entire day pulling out freshly planted flowers while leaving all the weeds.
An uncomfortable exchange ensues as the grandfather learns what the problem is and that his grandson lied to get them this work.
“We do not lie for work.”
Grampa has the boy ask what can be done. Can they return tomorrow and put the good plants back? Will they live?
The boy’s thoughts turn to his dashed dinner plans, and watching tomorrow’s Lakers game on TV and missing church service. Maybe missing church will sway Grampa.
“We will miss them both then,” his grandfather said. “It is the price of the lie. Tell the gentleman what I said and ask him if the plants will live.”
The plants will live.
The driver partially takes responsibility for not staying to get them started and says he’ll pick them up tomorrow at 6 a.m. to fix the field. He offers to give Grampa half his pay today and half tomorrow, but Grampa refuses until the work is done right.
“Francisco’s grandfather and [the driver] looked at each other and words seemed to pass between them, though there were no words. [The driver] slid his wallet back into his pocket. [...]
“Tomorrow then. 6 a.m. And tell your grandfather I can always use a good man — for more than just one day’s work. The important things your grandfather knows already. And I can teach him gardening.”
What I take from the story, aside from the values of honesty, responsibility, appropriate discipline, and hard work, is that people can enjoy mutual respect despite language and cultural barriers.
Eve Bunting has written 250 novels and children’s books. Here are a few of her more serious picture book titles:
- Fly Away Home — A boy and father live in an airport, homeless. Told from the child’s perspective, it offers hope for the future as a bird trapped inside with them eventually escapes out an open door.
- The Wall — A boy and his father travel to the Vietnam War Memorial to find his grandfather’s name among those killed in the war.
- The Memory String — A girl struggles with her love for her deceased mother and the presence of her new stepmother, with a string of mementos playing a pivitol role.
- Smoky Night — Hope is found in the aftermath of the urban violence from a Los Angeles riot. Oh, and it has cats. And would you believe at this point Eve Bunting is a white haired Grandma from Ireland?
- The Wednesday Surprise — We own this one. A granddaughter reads to her grandmother when Grandma visits each week. The surprise ending, for the characters and you the reader alike, is when Grandma reads to her whole family. All this time the granddaughter had been teaching Grandma how to read.