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!