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