Set in the 1980s, The Year Money Grew on Trees by Aaron Hawkins introduces us to 14-year-old Jackson Jones and his unforgettable crew of siblings and cousins as they teach themselves how to grow a healthy and profitable apple orchard.
The story begins when Jackson finds himself tricked into signing a seemingly simple contract with the eccentric old lady next door - Jackson will do all the work, bring the orchard back to life, and sell the harvest. He will pay Mrs. Nelson the first $8000 of any profit. In return, Jackson can not only keep any remaining monies but he will receive the deed to the orchard.
Having entered into the contract (and signing it in a lawyer's office, lest there be any question about the contract's authenticity) Jackson realizes the enormity of the task he has undertaken. He enlists the help of his sisters and cousins, promising each of them a percentage of the profits (based on age - so his 11-year-old cousin will get 11%, etc.) while keeping the truth of his obligation a secret.
With little more than notes from a library book and information from his Sunday School teacher - who also grows apples - Jackson teaches himseld and his motley crew all about pruning, weeding, irrigation and more. As the summer progresses and the trees begin to flourish, Jackson begins to believe that maybe he will succeed, even as he stresses with the secret that all their hard work will be for naught if the orchard doesn't earn at least $8000. Jackson fears that he may be in over his head - and starts to wonder if Mrs. Nelson will hold up her end of the deal.
With a focus on hard work, The Year Money Grew on Trees was suprisingly engrossing. It reminded me a little bit of Gary Paulsen's Lawn Boy, although the story is much more realistic. There is no easy way out here for Jackson and his crew; readers will be on the edge of their seats waiting to learn if the kids will succeed or if all their work will be in vain. This book isn't for everyone, but the readers who give it a chance will be rewarded with an unforgettable tale.