Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder is the second book published in her Little House series and deals with the childhood of her husband, Almanzo. If I remember correctly, I think I read that Little House in the Big Woods and this book were all that were planned originally, and when they became so popular, then Laura went on to write other books about her growing up. Since Almanzo doesn’t appear in the rest of the series until a few books later, his story can really be read just about anywhere along the way.
The book covers a little over a year, beginning when Almanzo was almost nine years old. His father was a farmer and his family more prosperous than the Ingalls’ family, but they were very frugal as well. In this book Almanzo was the youngest of four children, though another boy was born to the family some years later.
Farming at this time involved the whole family. Almanzo and his brother Royal helped their father with the everyday chores like milking and cleaning out the animal stalls, and his sisters Eliza Jane and Alice helped their mother in the house, though Alice sometimes helped outside with planting and harvesting (in hoop skirts!) and Almanzo had to help inside sometimes during spring cleaning or other busy times.
Farmers were not busy just in planting and harvesting, though those, especially the latter, might be the most pressured times. They also made repairs, made equipment, broke horses, trained cattle, sheared sheep, cut ice, and many other tasks, while their wives spun thread, wove fabric, sewed, knitted, made hats, made (and sold) butter, etc. etc.
And the children were to participate in it all, both to learn by doing and to learn to pull together as a family. But the children had plenty of fun times as well. They attended school, though the boys could stay home when needed for certain tasks (which Almanzo preferred).
The children were no angels, but I’d say they were pretty normal. When their parents went away for a week, they slacked off on what they were supposed to do and ate a horrendous amount of sweets, then had to scramble to catch up the day before their parents were to come home. Almanzo got into a fight with his cousin (from a literary point of view, he had it coming for a long time: from a Christian and moral point of view, no, that’s not what he should have done) and threw a blacking brush (used on the stove) at his sister, which left a black splotch on the wallpapered wall of Mother’s for-company-only pristine parlor.
I mentioned before that Almanzo’s parents were frugal even though they were considered pretty well off. I remember when I had a job for a while cleaning in the home of a lady whose husband was the vice president of a large company. One day she fussed at me for washing the whole glass door when there was only one spot that needed to be taken care of. Inwardly I kind of rolled my eyes and thought, “As if you need to worry about a few cents worth of cleaner being wasted!” But then I thought, prosperous people don’t get where they are by being wasteful. At an Independence Day celebration, Almanzo was goaded by his cousin into asking his father for a nickel for lemonade. Almanzo was nine and had never asked his father for such a thing before. His father pulled out a half-dollar and asked Almanzo what it was. When all Almanzo could identify it as was a half-dollar, his father said, “It’s work, son. That’s what money is; it’s hard work.” He asked Almanzo a series of questions about growing, harvesting, and selling potatoes, remarked that half a bushel sold for a half-dollar, held up the coin, and then said, “That’s what’s in this half-dollar, Almanzo. The work that raised half a bushel of potatoes is in it.” Then he gave it to him and told him he could either spend it in lemonade or, he suggested, he could buy a little pig and raise it to have more pigs to sell for 4 or 5 dollars apiece. I’ll let you guess which Almanzo did.
One of the major take-aways from this book is what a tremendous lot of work such a life was. It sounds almost idyllic here, but it seemed almost constant. No one complained about it: that’s just how life was. There is something neat about knowing how to use all the parts of a butchered animal (some was frozen in the shed or attic for future use, some was saved for sausage, some parts were used in making soap and candles, the hide was saved for making shoe leather) and which trees were good for what (one kind was used for making sleds and carts, another kind for runners for the sled, another kind for withes or straps for baling hay, etc), and I admire it, but I don’t know that I’d want to go back to those days.
When Almanzo helped his father thresh wheat and asked why his father didn’t buy a threshing machine, his father said, “‘That’s a lazy man’s way to thresh. Haste makes waste, but a lazy man’d rather get his work done fast than do it himself. That machine chews up the straw til it’s not fit to feed stock, and it scatters grain around and wastes it. All it saves is time, son. And what good is time, with nothing to do? You want to sit and twiddle your thumbs, all these stormy winter days?’ ‘No!’ said Almanzo. He had enough of that on Sundays.” Yet they did use some machinery. I guess it depended on what the machine did and whether it helped or wasted goods.
There is a bit of contrast between the Almanzo’s family and his cousins, who live nearer town and wear store-bought clothes, and the shopkeepers who have to “cotton to people,” while farmers are considered (by the farmers, at least) to be “free and independent.” Almanzo’s parents dislike that Royal wants to be a storekeeper. I hadn’t thought of this aspect until I saw it mentioned in a couple of reviews I skimmed through, but town cousins and shopkeepers may have represented the changing society away from being farm-based to being more centered around towns and other goods and services.
Something else that stands out in the book is the way children were treated. It was definitely not a child-centered era. Some of it might come across as harsh by today’s standards, yet the parents were not unkind. Children were not to speak until spoken to at the table or when the parents were talking with other adults and, as I mentioned before, were expected to participate in most of the family work. I don’t think the latter is a bad thing, though these days we wouldn’t require quite so much of it. I don’t remember if I ever read this book to my boys – I should have – but I do remember telling them, when they fussed over having to vacuum and dust every other Saturday, that there were some kids who had to milk cows and muck out barns every day. 🙂 I do think it is good for children to work around the house, for several reasons: they learn by doing, they learn to be givers and not just takers, they learn to pull together as a family, they learn responsibility and (hopefully) the value and satisfaction of a job well done which will carry through not just in their own homes but in their jobs as well. I get frustrated with sentimental poems that seem to indicate you can have a clean house or you can be a good mom, but not both, or that you’re a bad mom if you don’t stop what you’re doing every time your child wants you to play with him. We do get distracted, with both work and our own “play,” and we need to be reminded not to get caught up in all of that and neglect our children, but there is just as much value (maybe more) in working together with them as there is in playing together. And it doesn’t hurt children to learn to wait for things, either, whether it’s waiting for their parents to finish a conversation before asking them something, or waiting, as Almanzo did when he wanted a colt, for his parents to be sure he was really ready. Though I wouldn’t want to totally go back to how things were in that day, I think there is some good balance between that extreme and the mindset these days.
There were also interesting forays into how some things were done, such as having a cobbler come to the house for a week or two to make the family shoes, how they sheared sheep and made bobsleds and threshed wheat, etc. Sometimes there was a bit too much detail, but overall it was interesting.
I remember not liking this book as well as the others in the series in previous readings, but I liked it quite a lot this go-round.
(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)
This also completes one of my requirements for the Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Karen at Books and Chocolate.