Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Moving from the isolated plains of Kansas to the abundant farms and busy towns of upstate New York, Laura Ingalls Wilder uses the delightful Farmer Boy to tell the story of her husband Almanzo Wilder’s childhood. Almanzo’s life could not have been more different from Laura’s. His parents were wealthy and successful farmers, and had a large, warm, comfortable house not far from the large town of Malone. Almanzo grew up alongside his elder siblings Royal, Eliza Jane and Alice, and they had a wonderful, rambunctious childhood on the farm, where there was always plenty to eat, plenty to do, and plenty of adventures to have. Life with the Wilders is described beautifully, and it is a testament to how close Laura and Almanzo must have been that she can tell her husband’s story so evocatively.

Almanzo is a terrific character, and a perfectly realised nine year old boy. Always starving hungry, always teasing his sisters, and always desperate to do the things his parents tell him he is not old enough to do yet, he comes effortlessly to life on the page. He loves farm life, and he adores the animals he is given to look after. He has his own two calves, Star and Bright, and it is his job to train them so that they can respond to direction and pull a sled. Time spent at school is torture for Almanzo, when he just wants to be out in the fresh air with the animals, training them and proving to his father that he is old enough and responsible enough to be given his own colt to break. Having his own colt is Almanzo’s dearest dream and throughout the whole book he is learning the lessons he needs to learn in order to develop the maturity, patience and discipline to be given such a heavy responsibility.

Life on the farm is busy and there are a constant round of season specific chores to carry out. When the book opens, it is winter, and the cold is almost unbearable. However, no one can afford to spend all day keeping warm indoors. After school, Almanzo and Royal must go out and do the chores, making sure that the animals are fed, warm and clean. They are rewarded by the colossal feasts their mother cooks every night for dinner; roasted meats, stews, sweet and savoury pies, creamy mashed potatoes and fresh vegetables are heaped on the table, ready to fill the hungry young bellies. The amount of food Almanzo manages to pack away astounded me! Not content with a full plate of dinner, he easily devours three slices of pie for his pudding, and then, when the family retire to the warm and cosy firelit parlour, he continues to eat; apples, apple cider and popcorn are all provided to munch on as they read together until bedtime. This is NOT the book to read on an empty stomach! This abundance of food was a huge change from the sparse diet the Ingalls ate on the prairie; Laura was lucky if she got beans and salt pork for dinner, whereas Almanzo has the pick of an entire farm’s worth of produce, and he is never in danger of going without.

Almanzo’s parents are wise and forthright and don’t spare their children the realities of farming life. Everyone has their responsibilites, and Alice and Eliza Jane and Mother have just as many chores to do as their male relatives. They believe in learning through doing, and Almanzo and Royal are regularly let off school in order to help with big jobs, like cutting ice from the pond to keep for the summer, threshing, harvesting and hauling logs. Almanzo gets into many a scrape, but by making mistakes and being foolish he learns that he needs to be careful and responsible in order to be trusted and to get the job done. He nearly falls into the pond when he is not paying attention, and nearly gets crushed by a log, but he gets up again each time, and his father’s stern but loving encouragement gives him the confidence to keep trying to get things right. His battle to get Star and Bright to haul lumber was particularly endearing; I loved how his father rode past him when he saw he had fallen into a ditch with the two wayward calves, refusing to give him help because he knew that Almanzo needed to learn how to resolve his own difficulties if he was going to become a good farmer.

It’s not all hard work and no play for Almanzo and his siblings, however; as hard as they work on the farm, they are also given plenty of opportunities to enjoy themselves. The big county fair was a particularly enjoyable episode, when Almanzo enters his specially cultivated pumpkin to win the top prize, and Christmas was also delightful, when the rowdy and competitive cousins come over from town, food is even more lavish than usual and the thrilled Wilder children come tumbling downstairs at 3.30am to rouse their parents and open their presents and all they are greeted with is a stern but kindly ‘children, have you thought to look at the clock?’. Toboganning is of particular enjoyment in the snow, and in the summer, the children delight in running around barefoot in the fields and eating their weight in watermelons. It sounds like an absolutely charmed existence, despite the cold weather, the often hard labour, and the difficulties that occasionally crop up, like when an early frost comes and it’s all hands on deck to save the crops before the sun comes up. Almanzo’s parents are loving and wise, and bring their children up to value what they have, understand the merits of hard work, and appreciate the worth of money. They are proud of their farm and their home, and while the younger generation seem to have their heads turned towards the more modern and productive way of life in the towns and cities, they are keen to instil a sense of pride and respect in the land and being self reliant. At the end, Almanzo’s choice between pursuing a town or country future exemplifies the changing attitudes towards rural livelihoods and the easier, less labour intensive urban way of life; modernisation is coming, even as Laura’s family are living a simple and, perhaps to the Wilders, incomprehensibly backwards, way of life on the prairie.

On the surface this is a charming and beautifully told tale of a rural childhood, but between the lines there is a different story. The world is modernising, and the increasing growth of towns and the opportunities available for work within them are drawing more and more of the younger generations away from the farms their fathers and grandfathers started. The conflict between the traditionally raised Wilders and their city raised cousins, who wear store bought rather than hand made clothes, and get given nickels to buy trivial things, demonstrate the rapidly changing values and aspirations of society as urbanisation increases. A theme I particularly enjoyed was Almanzo’s mother’s role in the family; like the pioneer women I read about in Joanna Stratton’s book, she plays a vital part in the economics of the home as well as fulfilling the traditional function of wife, mother and homemaker. The butter she makes brings in as much money as her husband’s potato crop, and without her culinary skills, the family would not have the harvested food she uses a variety of ways to preserve to eat all throughout the barren, freezing winter. She has just as much a say in the way things are done as her husband, and their equal, affectionate and respectful relationship was very interesting to read about in a pre feminist age. Not all Victorian women were angels in the house after all.

So, another wonderful read that educated and entertained me. I love how much I have gained from reading these so called simple children’s books. They are showing me so much about American history and the values young Americans were brought up with over a century ago. The greatest joy is that there are so many more books to come; I am waiting for my copy of On the Banks of Plum Creek to arrive, to take me back to the prairies and the story of the Ingalls family…I can’t wait!

34 comments

  1. What a beautiful copy! I loved this one so much; I lent my copy to my friend Emily to cheer her up when she was poorly, but I never ever got it back (and didn’t feel like asking her Mum to look for it). I must replace it pronto.

    1. Thanks Verity! I am collecting these old ones because the illustrations are just so beautiful. Definitely get yourself another copy – it will be a nice way to remember Emily as well as you know it made her happy.

    2. It’s American, Verity – I’m not sure these early editions were ever published in the UK. I bought mine from abebooks – there are quite a few on there. Look for the Harper and Brothers editions – not the Eau Claire edition as that was produced for school libraries at the same time as the original printing and has a different cover. If it’s pre 1952 then it will be this edition. Anything after 1952 will be the Garth Williams edition with different illustrations. If you need help tracking one down let me know!

  2. You are in for a treat with On the Banks of Plum Creek – I can’t believe that you didn’t read these books in your childhood (they were a mainstay). However I have never heard of Farmer’s Boy and must try to get hold of a copy – it’s how the story ends. Must read.

    1. I can’t wait to read On the Banks of Plum Creek! I know, I know…in my defence I don’t think they are as popular/widely read in the UK – I don’t remember ever seeing them in book shops. Get hold of Farmer Boy – it is wonderful and as well very interesting to see the contrast in the quality of life between those living in the Eastern and Western states at the time of pioneering.

  3. This sounds delightful! I have been thinking lately that I must try and get hold of the Little House books. I adored the tv series when I was little but can’t remember reading the books. Now that I’ve read your review of this one, I’m keener than ever.

  4. You have to find a pioneer village somewhere…anywhere nearby, Rachel! The sap will be running soon and you could get a glimpse of what life would have been like on a homestead. The aroma of woodsmoke and maple sugar molds, ladies in calico and bonnets, delightful even to this anglophile!

    I desperately wanted to live in a log cabin as a young girl and climb a ladder up into the loft for bedtime just like Laura and Mary. You have a precious book there I must say!

    1. Oh Darlene! I hope there is one nearby! How amazing would that be?!

      That is so sweet – living in a log cabin sounds so romantic and fun, especially to a child, but I bet the reality wasn’t as pleasant!!

  5. What a beautiful book and with such charming pictures. I am not at all familiar with this author or the other books you mentioned but your review really brings this era to life. Thank you!

  6. You have captured Farmer Boy beautifully, as well as the times that are starting to change, in your review, Rachel. Didn’t you just want to start a fire, make some popcorn, and crunch into an apple (stored in the root cellar, of course)?

    You will love By the Shores of Plum Creek. Is the copy you are awaiting the same illustrator? This and the others you have read are, I believe, the original illustrator and beautiful. Garth Williams also illustrator the series. Look them up some time. They are special in their own right.

    Almanzo shows up in at a very critical time in the series in The Long Winter, so, you won’t want to miss that, but, do continue to read the books in order for the best effect. I’m sure there is some sugar maple tapping going on soon, if not already, in upstate New York, certainly in Vermont. It would be fun for you to experience. We did it here one winter day when our girls were little and they still remember tasting the sap coming out of the trees.

    Sigh. I’m almost done with an interesting read about two female antiquarian book dealers, one a noted Louisa May Alcott biographer from the ’50s who discovered LMA’s pseudonym and adult works, or I’d be dipping into Laura Ingalls Wilder this afternoon.

    1. Thank you Penny! I did! That scene of them all cosy with their popcorn and cider was wonderful!

      Yes – I am collecting the whole set. It’s not cheap but I love these illustrations. The Garth Williams ones are also wonderful but there is a simplicity about the Helen Sewell ones that I adore. One day I might get a set of both!

      I am looking forward to The Long Winter – I heard the courtship between the two is lovely. OOOOH If I can get there I definitely want to see some sugar maple tapping! That sounds brilliant!!

      That book sounds spectacular – I think I’ve heard of it before. I’m looking forward to reading your review!

  7. This one was my favorite of The Laura Years, which surprised me, since it wasn’t about the Ingalls. I fell in love with little Almanzo and his family, though. I especially like his father.

    Second favorite is Little Town in the Prairie.🙂

  8. As I have said before, you can’t go wrong reading Laura Ingalls Wilder. I have read the series many times and always felt that Farmer Boy led me to another world when compared to the Ingalls family. The only comparison I had as a child was when we visited our Aunt and Uncle. They lived in a fabulous modern house worthy of a magazine cover compared to our modest bungalow. They had air conditioning and multiple cars, and bathrooms, dishwashers, and rooms that were so fancy they were seldom used. Their house was always quiet and serene, but our house was noisy and filled to the brim with the neighborhood children and pets. They were two worlds that existed at the same time, yet one was the status quo and one was a glimpse into the future. Both households were pleasant and successful but they were so different.

    Enjoy the Little House books. Read them all and keep them. In a few years return to them and you will find new things within them. I always do. They will remind you of your trip to our country.

    1. How interesting, Janet. Your story is similar to many people’s growing up, I’m sure, and I wonder what Laura would have thought if she’d gone to Almanzo’s and seen his life for a few days? While the Ingalls were a happy family, I am sure they would have been happier had they experienced the abundance of food and social life of the Wilders.

      Thank you – I will, and I look forward to rereading them and enjoying them for many years to come. I hope to have children to read them with as well, that will really be a lovely experience.

  9. Great summary of the book! This is a family favorite, but it always prompts my kids to request apple pie for breakfast.🙂 I gently remind them that they don’t do enough physical labor to work off apple pie…
    So glad you are enjoying the series!

  10. I LOVE this book — especially all the food descriptions. His childhood sounded so idyllic — and I love the chapter where the parents go away and the kids are home alone for a week. I need to reread this series, it’s been so long. I was reading part of Little House in the Big Woods to my daughter a couple of months ago and I loved it just as much as when I was a girl. These books have really stood the test of time.

    If you have any occasion to come to the Midwest while you’re in the States, there area Wilder homesteads and museums, I think in South Dakota. I lived just a couple of hours away about ten years ago and I’m so annoyed with myself for not visiting. Mygirls were too little and it never occurred to me to make the pilgrimage myself and I wish I had. It would be quite a trip from New York!

    1. Hi Karen! I love the food and the chapter where they are all alone too – especially when Eliza Jane fixes the wallpaper without telling Almanzo! They really are timeless books – so much fun to read as an adult as well as a child and that is the true sign of an excellent book in my opinion!

      I am going to try and get to the homestead museum – hopefully I will make it when I am at the end of my internship and have some time to travel!

  11. What a beautiful edition! I must admit that the first time I read Farmer Boy I was rather indifferent to it but, given that I was eight years old, I think we can assume my skill as a critic allowed room for improvement. On subsequent rereadings, it became one of my favourite books in the series – partially for all the descriptions of meals and food! I also remember being incredibly upset with the Wilder parents for being so cruel when it came to naming their sons, especially since the girls had such unexceptional names!

    1. Thank you! I just love these old editions, they are so beautiful and special. I’m glad Farmer Boy has grown on you – the food is just amazing to read about! Poor Mrs Wilder must have never left her kitchen! Yes the names are quite something – they had another son in real life according to wikipedia – called Perley. I don’t know what they were thinking!!

  12. Farmer Boy is my favorite out of the series. My mom first started reading the Little House books to us when I was three, and I very clearly remember the scene when the teacher whips the bad boys! I’ve read it many times since, and wind up ravenously hungry every time. They’re also fun and familiar because, over a hundred years later, my parents still raised us with very similar traditional American (or really, universal) values – strict, but loving and “twinkly eyed”, with an emphasis on hard work from an early age, practical skills, responsibility, and self-reliance. Sadly, no pie for breakfast though🙂. I love how these books capture sibling rivalry and relationships too – somethings never change!

    1. That scene with the whipping was so good – I was delighted to see those boys put in their place! Your upbringing sounds wonderful – I wish more children were brought up with those values! Yes -the best part about all of them are that they are real and nobody is portrayed as perfect – all the normal elements of childhood are there and not sanitised. People who were living over 100 years ago were no different to us really, after all!

  13. Oh once again the beautiful illustrations! Thanks for sharing them. I had the same reaction you did: my gosh, all that food! It’s really a little shocking to move from a Laura book to the Almanzo book. The pies at the fair really stuck with me. What to eat first? Such a dilemma.
    This is such a charming book. I like how you picked up how it is a story of the training of Almanzo. And you can see the push of the “townies”.
    Didn’t you love how the kids got into trouble? Laura and Mary would never be that naughty, but the part about the stain on the wall could have come right from my own childhood.
    You’ve written a lovely review!

    1. I’m glad you like them, Nancy – I adore them! I know – the abundance is so unexpected!

      Oh, yes – whenever my parents left us kids to our own devices disaster always ensued! The boot polish reminded me of when my parents had just had my brother’s bedroom repainted and I was wearing new dark coloured socks, lying on my brother’s bed making circles against the wall with my feet and the dye in my socks stained the wall in huge arcs – I was so scared to tell my dad but thankfully he wasn’t too cross – I needed an Eliza Jane to fix it for me!

      Thank you, I’m so glad you enjoyed it!

  14. Oh I forgot to say, I once read a reminiscence of someone who knew Laura and Almanzo late in their lives. Every night Almanzo would eat a great big bowl of popcorn!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s