Silver Spoon Volumes 1-2
The classic “fish out of water” story, where someone with preconceptions and stereotypes learns to appreciate another lifestyle, feels fresh in Silver Spoon by Hiromu Arakawa (Fullmetal Alchemist). That’s because so few of us these days know what it takes to be modern farmers, and it’s fascinating to learn along with this high school student.
Hachiken, with no background in farming, enrolls at an agricultural high school with plenty of hands-on training. He’d previously been geared for high academic achievement, so the question of why he ran away to the country continues through the series. All we know so far is that he (wrongly) expects the classes to be a breeze, and he wanted a school with dorms so he doesn’t have to go home.
His first friend is Mikage, whose family has a farm with cows and horses. Like many of their classmates, she is preparing herself to carry on the family business. These kids are country, but they have big dreams and are learning the scientific basis to improving their output. They aren’t as book smart as Hachiken, but they have a lot of specialized knowledge, showing up his assumptions about how easy an aggie school will be. He’s the outsider in more ways than one, as everyone else is working towards a specific goal, and he stands out for his lack of purpose and future plans.
Just the work involved in animal care is impressive and eye-opening. Plus, Hachiken has some mental struggles in eating delicious food once he sees exactly where it comes from. He also joins the equestrian club and learns the importance of doing a good job for the animals in his care without cutting corners.
The characters are visual caricatures — strapping farm boys (one of who dreams of making it as a baseball player), the cute girl, the big girl (named Tamako because she’s egg-shaped) — but I enjoyed seeing the animals, particularly the adorable piglets. This is how Hachiken is going to come face to face with the life-and-death decisions necessary for agricultural work, as he is cautioned not to name his future food.
The second volume brings the school together for a pizza party! During trash cleanup, Hachiken finds a brick oven. He discovers that most of the kids rarely eat pizza because there isn’t delivery outside the cities, so all the departments pitch in to make it. The task demonstrates just how wide-ranging the school’s areas are, as well as how much goes into making a simple treat when you start from scratch.
They’ve got groups to make flour, veggies, sauce, and meat toppings, as well as the silviculture (forestry management) department for firewood. The biggest problem is the cheese. Instead of mozzarella, they use gouda, which is “better suited to the Japanese palate”. (This was the weirdest moment of the books for me.)
After that, it’s summer vacation, and Hachiken is off to Mikage’s place to work as a farm hand. It’s rather like Green Acres, in seeing the good-hearted city boy fall into the manure pile and struggle to find a cell phone signal and freak out when seeing the miracle of a calf’s birth. The deeper point, though, is that the hard, unending work can still be rewarding on a family farm.
Every chapter of Silver Spoon teaches me something new. Beyond the information on agricultural techniques, Hachiken is learning to think outside himself, both in helping his friends and classmates and working with animals. It’s a refreshing, rewarding read.