Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder
originally published 1933
HarperTrophy, ?th printing, 1971
Genre: Children’s literature, fictionalized biography, historical fiction
Synopsis & Review: When Farmer Boy opens, Almanzo Wilder is not-quite-nine-years-old and on his way to school with his brother Royal and sisters Eliza and Alice. It is the beginning of his formal schooling, but Almanzo is already well on his way to assuming adult responsibilities. His day starts at five, when he gets up for the morning chores. After school, he and Royal assist Father in feeding and watering the stock, cleaning the stalls and pens, laying out fresh straw, milking, and finally Almanzo cares for his own two responsibilities, his calves Star and Bright. Throughout the winter there are many special chores to be done when the weather permits, and Almanzo must sometimes stay home from school to cut ice from the lake or break his little calves to yoke, collecting sap for sugaring, busheling potatoes to sell, and finally, cleaning the house and barns from top to bottom for spring. There are cold snaps necessitating labor through the night to save the crops. And then come long days of harrowing the fields, then the sowing of grain, rye, grass, and carrots, and planting potatoes and corn. The sheep must be sheared, wool dyed, soap made, pumpkins and other vegetables planted, and then the fields hoed for weeds. And after a long summer of growing, the approach of fall beings harvest time, and hay cutting, reaping and threshing wheat, shocking oats and harvesting all the crops fill their days from dawn till dark. Apples are picked, potatoes, carrots, and turnips dug, and then comes butchering time. Animals are butchered, sausage made, hams hung, and pork pickled, and even candles made. Life is a race against the weather, for the cellars and attics must be filled with the fruits of their labors before the snows come.
But it is not all work and no play for the Wilders. There are also trips to town for Independence Day, visits from the tin-peddler, birthday surprises, and county fairs. Almanzo and his family go fishing and berrying in the summer, and have cousins over for Christmas. When Mother and Father go visiting, Almanzo and his siblings make candy and ice cream. But Almanzo gets the most satisfaction from working with his calves, in anticipation of the day when he might work his very own colt.
When you mention Farmer Boy to most devotees of the Little House books, you’re likely to get one of two reactions: a) The boy book! and b) The FOOD book! I know for most of my youth, the former was my primary thought about Laura’s visit to Alamanzo’s boyhood. It seemed somewhat dull, and an odd departure from the Ingalls’ adventures, coming as it did after Little House on the Prairie. Farmer Boy was originally the second of the Little House books to be published, however, and I find it scans better in that order. Little House in the Big Woods gives little indication of the epic journey of the Ingalls family as they search for a home in the West, so it is less startling to go from Laura’s cozy log house in Wisconsin to the bustling Wilder farm in New York State.
It also seemed dull because of the focus on chores and the work of running a household and a farm, but as an adult, I am tremendously charmed by the Wilders and their busy lives. Everyone in the Wilder family has their jobs to do, and when someone needs help, then another person pitches in. Almanzo is as likely to find himself helping his mother dip candles as shaving shingles, and Alice as likely to help keep house as to dig potatoes; when there is work to be done, all able hands must do it.There is a wonderful expediency there to override the otherwise restrictive gender roles Laura Ingalls Wilder explores in her writing. (For as we recall, Laura always did prefer to be out helping Pa rather than shut in the house.) And it is purely fascinating to see the marvelous self-sufficiency of the Wilder farm, providing so much for themselves, and hardly beholden (a Little House, word to be sure) to anyone for what they need–one of the reasons Almanzo longs to be a farmer when he’s grown, as opposed to Royals storekeeper ambitions. For children, however, much of the charm lies in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s talent for making the seemingly mundane activities of everyday life magical and amazing. After reading a few of these books, many a child is convinced that they want nothing more than to dip candles or color butter with carrots!
Though it seems as though not much happens, Farmer Boy does not simply follow the every day occurrences of their lives, but also charts some of the triumphs and pitfalls Almanzo encounters as he grows up. (Of course, he is a great deal more grown-up in many ways at ten than I was, or most children today are.) Almanzo wants to prove himself competent, he wants to enter the world of adults and do adult things, and most of all, he wants to make his father proud. It is not a relentless harping upon self-sufficiency that he learns, though. From the time the schoolmaster thrashes the big boys to Almanzo’s blacking misadventure, the theme of relying upon one’s family or community to help one take control or make it through a rough spot is emphasized. This moralizing is never preachy, however, but subtly driven in through Almanzo’s escapades and observations.
And then there’s the food. Because between every one of those activities I mentioned, Almanzo eats. And eats. And stuffs himself some more. I mentioned in the Little House in the Big Woods book report that I distinctly remembered sitting down in our dining room one winter evening to a massive bowl of mashed potatoes, that I ate as I read, while outside the big picture window it slowly grew darker and wetter. Well, I know it was Farmer Boy I read that night, because there’s a large butter stain on page 76 from when I dropped the book into the bowl. And how could I resist eating? Everyday breakfasts and dinners in the Wilder household are the stuff of legend,
Almanzo ate the sweet, mellow baked beans. He ate the bit of salt pork that melted like cream in his mouth. He ate the mealy boiled potatoes, with brown ham-gravy. He ate the ham. He bit deep into velvety bread spread with sleek butter, and he ate the crisp golden crust. He demolished a tall heap of pale mashed turnips, and hill of stewed yellow pumpkin. Then he sighed, and tucked his napkin deeper into the neckband of his red waist. And he ate plum preserves and strawberry jam, and grape jelly, and spiced watermelon-rind pickles. He felt very comfortable inside. Slowly he ate a large piece of pumpkin pie.
Every bloody meal is like that! It’s a distinct contrast from the subsistence level living in most of the other Little House books, where the Ingalls family live largely off what they can forage and hunt. The Wilders’ Lucullan feasts must have stimulated Laura’s fertile imagination, spurring her ever onward into description, living a childhood she’d never had through her husband’s memoir.
More than any of the other books, Farmer Boy makes me want to don an apron and hustle into the kitchen for a day of cooking and baking. Last fall, we made his favorite fried apples n’ onions to go with pork chops, and they were divine. After reading it this time, I can’t wait to cook my way through my new Little House Cookbook!
18 August – 20 August