Friday, March 15, 2013

Farmer Boy

Farmer Boy, by Laura Ingalls Wilder

I bet I am not the only person who loved the stories about Laura and Mary, but always skipped Farmer Boy out of a conviction that it would be boring.  Well people I WAS WRONG.  Farmer Boy is fantastic.

This story tells about a year in Almanzo Wilder's life as a boy--from age 9 to 10.  His parents own a farm and are well-to-do; they are also careful, thrifty, and hard-working.  Almanzo is now old enough to go to school, but most of the time he would rather be working with his father, especially if it involves horses.  There are some great stories--how the mild-mannered schoolteacher deals with a pack of tough young men who pride themselves on breaking up the school every year, how Almanzo trains his team of young oxen, and what happens when the parents go on a ten-day visit and leave the children in charge of the farm.  Oh, and there's a great chapter about returning a lost wallet.

What really struck me about the book, though, was the differences in attitudes--and how much the author emphasized certain values.  This story has a message that is pounded home several times, about the value of independence, self-reliance, and solving your own problems (not to mention personal responsibility and hard work).  What kind of person did Almanzo and Laura Wilder consider to be the ideal American citizen?  It's all right here.

Near the beginning, Almanzo goes out to cut ice from the river with his father and the other men.  He is just watching the ice being cut, and walks up to the hole--and then he slips off the edge.  If not for a man who grabs him at the last second, he would have died.  His father runs up and:
Father stood over him, big and terrible.
"You ought to have the worst whipping of your life," Father said.
"Yes, Father," Almanzo whispered.  He knew it.  He knew he should have been more careful.  A boy nine years old is too big to do foolish things because he doesn't stop to think.
To me that is a startling attitude, that a nine-year-old would be expected to think before he does something dumb.  I would love to see it, but perhaps you have to be living in a more dangerous world than we do to have it. Time and again, Almanzo's father leaves him to solve his own problems and do large jobs of work on his own.

At the end, a wheelwright in town offers to take Almanzo on as an apprentice, which would give him a good trade and a comfortable life.  His mother is horrified; it's bad enough that her older son wants to be a storekeeper, and now Almanzo too?  His father says:
"Well, son, you think about it.  I want you should make up your own mind.  With Paddock, you'd have an easy life, in some ways.  You wouldn't be out in all kinds of weather.  Cold winter nights, you could lie snug, in bed and not worry about young stock freezing.  Rain or shine, wind or snow, you'd be under shelter.  You'll be shut up, inside walls.  Likely you'll always have plenty to eat and wear and money in the bank."
"James!" Mother said.
"That's the truth, and we must be fair about it," Father answered.  "But there's the other side, too, Almanzo.  You'd have to depend on other folks, son, in town.  Everything you got, you'll get from other folks."
"A farmer depends on himself, and the land and the weather.  If you're a farmer, you raise what you eat, you raise what you wear, and you keep warm with wood out of your own timber.  You work hard, but you work as you please, and no man can tell you to go or come.  You'll be free and independent, son, on a farm."
The Wilders wanted to leave readers in no doubt about what life was best.  An independent life, accountable to no one, was better than a life in trade, no matter how hard it was.  When you know what the Wilders went through in their own farming life, which was nowhere near as prosperous as the one described here, it is pretty mind-boggling.  Indeed I seem to recall that as a young woman Laura always swore never to marry a farmer because she didn't want to be poor all her life, and then she did anyway, and was in fact poor for much of the time.  And she put this in anyway.  Wow.

7 comments:

jrleek said...
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jrleek said...

We tried to read it after Little House on the Prairie, but it was too difficult for the kids at that age. The Little House books' reading level generally increases with the age of Laura. Farmer Boy is an exception, it is set when Almanzo in 8 or 9, but the reading level is around The Long Winter level.

I was struck from the history that moving out the the Prairie was not a good evolutionary move. Ma and Pa Ingalls only had one grandchild, Rose, who never had any children. I've got a lot of respect for the Wilders' values of freedom and independence, but I'm not sure nature did.

Jean said...

Yes, I know what you mean. Wilder senior did very well with his philosophy, but Almanzo and Laura not so much. That's why I was so struck with their insistence on those values. I saw someone comment the other day that Rose actually resented her parents for being so poor when she was a child that she suffered health problems; I don't know if it's true but I'd like to know.

Certainly the Ingalls family did not have a lot of descendants. Their harsh frontier life was the cause, it's easy to see if you read their history.

Jenny/Teachingmybabytoread said...

Yeah, Rose had MAJOR resentment of her parents for being so poor. But paradoxically, she was the mother of the Libertarian party (along with Ayn Rand), and didn't want anyone to think that her family has received any type of government assistance whatsoever.

"The Ghost in the Little House" is a really good read if you can get your hands on it.

Jean said...

Yeah! And then Rose must have helped edit this book, too. I find that very confusing, because once they were out there on the claim I'm not sure what they could have done to mitigate their situation, kwim? It's not like there were lots of office jobs clamoring for Almanzo.

Jenny said...

Have you read "The Worst Hard Times" by Timothy Egan? It describes how all of the farming practices of the day were doomed to failure. So it wasn't really their fault that the way they were farming didn't work out. That's what everyone was doing, and what the government was encouraging them to do. People just didn't know better.

But speaking about Rose’s resentment, there’s also really weird things about how she thought her parents didn’t even bother reading her books. They would put them on the shelves and be really proud of them, but they wouldn’t actually read them.

It’s also hard to know how educated Almanzo really was. In the series it says that the Wilders sent their kids off to a semi fancy boarding high school, but then when you look at letters that Almanzo wrote they show something closer to an 8th grade level of education. So maybe reading Rose’s books was too difficult for him?

Jean said...

The Worst Hard Time is on my mental list of books to read--my mom read it a while back and it looks really interesting.

I think you could very well be right that Almanzo found Rose's books too difficult. I don't think he was much of a reader, and it's possible that even a boarding school didn't give as good an education as we would assume. Lots of people found basic literacy and figuring to be perfectly adequate for their needs.

Will definitely have to read Ghost in the Little House. Thanks for the recommendations!