The Turkey Farm: Behind the Smile
by Cheryl Archer & Jennifer Keefe

Town and Country Reprographics, 2005. ISBN 978-0-9801439-4-2.
Reviewed by Sharon Lippincott
Posted on 10/13/2008

Nonfiction: Memoir

The Turkey Farm: Behind the Smile is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and the power of true friendship. The book grabbed my attention from the opening scene—Jen's visit to the rural New Hampshire turkey farm where her mother was brutally murdered by a drug-crazed employee when Jen was ten. Jen came of age on that farm, raised with her two younger brothers not by her mother or father's families, but by Bill, the stepfather her hippie mother never got around to marrying after divorcing Jen's alcoholic father. During the summer, Bill expected the kids to earn their keep by working grueling hours at back-breaking manual labor in the fields. When "kill season" rolled around in early November, they were pulled from school for two weeks to help process thousands of turkeys for the holiday rush. When a new stepmother became overwhelmed and dysfunctional, it fell on Jen's shoulders to keep the household running and feed an endless parade of drop-in and long-term guests.

That work load alone would wear most people to a frazzle, but she also kept her grades up, served as captain of the varsity cheerleaders, and had a steady boyfriend. Maybe it was the steady supply of marijuana that she began smoking around the age of twelve that kept her going. Her stepfather was a dealer in many things, both legal and otherwise, and weed was a way of life (sometimes supplemented with cocaine). The ill-fated FBI raid was a high adventure moment in the story.

Even though she didn't know what "normal" family life was like, Jen knew hers wasn't, and hoped to find something better when she left for college. She dropped out of college for a year, and before she returned, she fell in love and moved in with Jim, a man who seemed to be the perfect mate. She managed to finish a year of nursing school while pregnant with her first child, a daughter, and married Jim a year later. By the time her son was born, she knew her marriage had been as big a mistake as her mother's. Life continued to be tough as she raised the two children alone, finished nursing school, and worked two or three jobs to make ends meet.

Jen's peace and healing was completed through writing, but in a sense it also began with writing. She and Sha wrote this book together over a period of nine years. Jen lived the story; Sha shaped the words and stood by Jen every step of the way as she scrambled to survive in the aftermath of her marriage and searched for the truth about her mother. The book project began when they were nineteen as a desire to capture a story stranger than any fiction, and through the years it took to complete it, the story matured as the women did.

The larger messages in the story for me are the assurance that making peace with the past is possible for anyone. The book demonstrates the power of writing for healing the pain of the past, the healing power of love and friendship, and the gift those who have an affinity for writing can offer to those who don't.

The idea of writing this book was born when Jennifer and Cheryl were nineteen. It began as a desire to tell a fascinating true story, but along the way it became therapeutic for Jennifer, and her message became more profound. While Jennifer "told" the story, Cheryl took the pieces of her memories to "show" the story. They did it together while each raising three children and working in a nursing home on an Alzheimer's unit. Read more on the authors' website

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