Chloe’s Book Club: Farmer Boy

I’ll start with a confession: as a child, I didn’t particularly like Farmer Boy.

Farmer Boy

Perhaps it was because I’d already bonded with Laura. Perhaps the description of classroom bullies was a bit too scary. Perhaps Father’s brand of child-rearing was intimidating. In any case, after a single reading I didn’t return to the book until I was an adult.

By then I was working in the living history world, and everything clicked. I loved the insights Farmer Boy provided into period activities. Mother was expert at weaving and cooking and everything else I wanted to learn.

Almanzo's childhood home has been beautifully preserved in Malone, NY.

Almanzo’s childhood home has been beautifully preserved in Malone, NY.

Almanzo is a very real boy. He resents his father’s belief that he isn’t responsible enough yet to help train the beautiful colts. He  hates being youngest, and therefore the last served at meals.  In the Birthday chapter, he gobbles his breakfast so he can see what gift is waiting—and is chastised by Mother.

Mothers always fuss about the way you eat. You can hardly eat any way that pleases them.

As always, descriptions of both the natural world and farming are vivid and sensory, such as these passages from Threshing:

The wind howled and the snow whirled and a mournful sound came from the cedars.  The skeleton apple trees rattled their branches together like bones.  All outdoors was dark and wild and noisy.

…The fans whirred inside the mill, a cloud of chaff blew out its front, and the kernels of clean wheat poured out of its side and went sliding down the rising heap on the floor.  Almanzo put a handful into his mouth; they were sweet to chew, and lasted a long time. 

Fanning Mill

Fanning mill.

One of my favorite scenes comes from Keeping House, when Father and Mother leave the children on their own for a week. In very kid-like fashion they bicker and do all the things they shouldn’t, such as eating all the sugar and sneaking into the colt pasture.

The barns at the Wilder Homestead are not original, but have been faithfully reproduced.

The barns at the Wilder Homestead are not original, but have been faithfully reproduced.

I am especially intrigued by Laura’s inclusion of the terrible moment when Almanzo throws the stove-blacking brush at his bossy sister Eliza Jane, leaving a terrible stain on Mother’s prized parlor wallpaper. Miraculously, Eliza Jane manages to patch the wallpaper so carefully that Mother never discovers what happened, saving Almanzo from the whipping of his life.  “I guess I was aggravating,” she tells him. Eliza Jane emerges as such an unlikeable character in later books that I love this glimpse of a softer side.

My favorite aspect of Farmer Boy is simply seeing the boy who became the adult Almanzo I know from later books. At times I’m taken aback by Father’s parenting style (particularly in the Wood-Hauling chapter, when Almanzo is hurt but doesn’t dare say so). But emerging from these episodes is a boy who is learning to figure problems through on his own.

I love the photo on the cover of this DVD, Almanzo Wilder: Life Before Laura. (Available from Legacy Documentaries)

I love the photo on the cover of this DVD, Almanzo Wilder: Life Before Laura. (Available from Legacy Documentaries)

Almanzo chooses to buy a piglet rather than spend a precious half-dollar on lemonade. Almanzo manages to get the last laugh during sheep shearing season, when the older workers don’t give him enough credit. In Breaking the Calves, Almanzo takes a chance that leads to a runaway situation:

That night Father asked him:  “You have some trouble this afternoon, son?”

“No,” Almanzo said. “I just found out that I have to break Star and Bright to drive when I ride.”

Most of all, Almanzo dreams of being a successful farmer, and of training horses. We’re not surprised when, in the final chapter, he turns down the offer of a softer life in town.

And then, suddenly, the whole world was a great, shining, expanding glow of warm light. For Father when on:

“If it’s a colt you want, I’ll give you Starlight.”

It’s the perfect ending.

Original cover. (Wikipedia)

Original cover. (Wikipedia)

How about you? Was Farmer Boy always a favorite?  Any favorite scenes? Please share!


Note: I am a former curator and love research, but I am not a Laura Ingalls Wilder scholar. For more academic information, see titles by William Anderson, Pamela Smith Hill, John E. Miller, and others. To learn more about the Chloe Ellefson Historic Sites mysteries, please visit my website.


Next up for discussion:  Little House On The Prairie.

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24 Responses to “Chloe’s Book Club: Farmer Boy”

  1. Carole Dagg Says:

    Farmer Boy was one of my favorites! I loved the descriptions of 19th-century farm life and insight into Almanzo’s childhood.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      I like the image of Almanzo telling Laura all these stories from his childhood. He must have been as good a storyteller as she was, because she really captured it.

  2. Melissa Middleswart Says:

    I’m not sure when I first read this one–I read the books as a child, then again as a librarian and then recently I reread them all again. I recall somewhere reading that someone thought Laura liked writing this one as Almanzo had so much food as a child, which she did not, and she could just enjoy creating all the descriptions of all the good food his family always had to eat.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Melissa, I’m always struck by the food in Farmer Boy. So much food, such variety. And Almanzo could pack it away! When I real LHBW it always seems to me that the family eats well in that one, but it does pale in comparison to the Wilder table. After Almanzo and Laura married they had some lean years, so perhaps it was good for both of them to reminisce about such abundance.

  3. Dianne B. Says:

    I did enjoy the book Farmer Boy and have read it several times. Almanzo’s growing up years were a contrast to Laura. He came from a family that had plenty of food and a stable life style. Despite this, his Father required that all the family work: the boys doing outside chores, the girls learning the jobs that women would be required to do. Yet, even so, when the late frost threatened the corn crop, all the family was out there watering the young corn shoots so they would be saved. It gives us an insight as to Almanzo as a young man and how he was taught about hard work. I think it was this strict upbringing that helped him when he settled in the South Dakota prairie.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Dianne, I come back to the same thought. Almanzo’s father’s style of letting him work out problems for himself sometimes takes me aback, as a modern reader…and yet, I agree, that no doubt had a lot to do with ability to cope and confront challenges later in life. And happily there are also many glimpses of Father teaching Almanzo important things, too.

  4. Jill Nisbet Says:

    As a child, this was not one of my favorites. The part
    I liked was when the children got into mischief. I did notice they seemed better off than the ingalls. As an adult I am shocked by that whipping scene in the school. Also did anyone else think. It would be impossible for a little boy to work so hard or eat so much? I know what you mean about Almanzos dad. Everything had to be a lesson. Sheesh!jjj

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Jill, in terms of the school, the most disturbing detail to me is that these bullies beat the former teacher so badly that he died, yet none of the adults in the area stepped in, other than Father advising the current teacher to use the whip. It’s a tough scene to locate early in the book. As for the food…as another reader noted, perhaps Laura exaggerated a bit to emphasize the abundance, or perhaps Almanzo remembered such quantities. I think of Mother (and her daughters) preparing all that food! No wonder she’s portrayed as industrious.

  5. Lois Scorgie Says:

    I’m half way through rereading FARMER BOY. I am enthralled by Garth Williams drawings, the details, the expressions on the people’s faces. See Almanzo’s distress, boredom while other’s are enjoying themselves. The drawings add so much to the feeling of being in Malone when Almanzo was growing up. Pie for breakfast was such a surprise to me!

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Lois, I think I’ve mentioned before that I adore Garth Williams’s illustrations (although I do think his cover should have included a horse, not the calves). Laura does such a good job of presenting Almanzo as a very real, complex little boy; and the illustrations tap right into that. It was a brilliant pairing!

  6. Jane Says:

    I never read FARMER BOY as a child; it was a “boy” book and I didn’t read “boy” books. However, I have read it at least twice as an adult and enjoyed it. Like others. I was also struck by the amount of food Almanzo ate.

    I think a good book to pair with this is “Justin Morgan Had a Horse”, which I recently read for the first time. It tells of the origin of the Morgan horse breed.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Jane, thanks for the suggestion! As a child I lived close enough to Chincoteague and Assateague Islands to visit, and I adored Marguerite Henry’s books set there (Misty of Chincoteague, etc.) I read Justin Morgan once as a kid, but I haven’t thought of it in years. Perfect for Almanzo fans!

  7. Barb Bristol Wiesmann Says:

    I read Farmer Boy along with all the other Little House books aloud to my children when they were younger. At that time we lived in a cabin with no electricity or running water, and the books, especially Farmer Boy, showed the value and necessity of working together to get by.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Barb, that is one of the things that comes through clearly, isn’t it? The kids tease each other, etc., but when things get rough the entire family works as a unit to meet the need. The scene Ellen mentioned, when the crop almost freezes one night, is perfect example.

  8. yourmindinbloom Says:

    I read this twice as an adult and once in my tweens/ teens. I enjoyed it more when I was younger. I found it very hard to get through. Yet it’s a great reminder how much our society has changed.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Interesting that you enjoyed it more when you were younger–the reverse of my experience. But it certainly is illuminating. The Wilders were relatively well-to-do, yet they sure worked hard.

  9. Ellen Macdonald Says:

    I re-read Farmer Boy with my children, but even that was about 30 – 35 years ago. The scene that comes back to me is racing to rescue a field of frozen lettuce before the sun comes up.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Ellen, that one is clear for me as well. Poor Almanzo stumbling around in the dark and cold, sloshing water over his feet in his haste to water all of the seedings. I’m not sure I understand the science, but they saved most of the crop.

  10. CindyK Says:

    For another interesting insight look at the writings of Laura’s daughter Rose.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Hi Cindy – I read some of Rose’s work years ago, but have chosen in recent years to stick with Laura’s work (and I do know about Rose’s editing role in the Little House books). Do you have a favorite title that Rose wrote?

  11. Carol Lowe Says:

    I remember rereading Farmer Boy on the evening of November 22, 1963 after President Kennedy was assassinated. It was a bit of innocence and stability in a world gone mad. I was 18. My maiden name was Farmer and we lived on a farm so my brothers were true Farmer Boys. Have always loved the book.

  12. Angela Says:

    I wouldn’t say that I disliked Farmer Boy as a child. But I never considered it to be part of the Little House series. I always read it separate from the rest of the series, and I didn’t connect to it in the same way that I connected to the other Little House books. But I didn’t love the food descriptions. As an adult, I find the book fascinating because it makes me wonder if Laura and Almanzo ever struggled in their marriage because of having such different upbringings. Sure, they both grew up as the children of farmers, but Almanzo seemed to have a very privileged childhood while Laura’s seemed filled with poverty and strife.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Angela, that’s a good point–Almanzo’s upbringing was very different than Laura’s. Was Laura better equipped to handle the hungry years? I’ve often wished that Almanzo had written too… he was such a hard worker, and a good provider, and it’s tragic that pushing himself when he was ill led to lifelong infirmity. It must have been so difficult, wanting to work harder and being hampered by ill health for the rest of his life.

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