02 January 2013


"Two or Three" Book Club, Meeting 29

Now that we're done with the first two Little House books (which I now know, thanks to Shaz, are not really the first two Little House books), we finally get to Farmer Boy, which, to my great distress, has even more chapters than Little House on the Prairie! So even as I excitedly announce that this will be the first of four posts about our current novel, I have no idea how I'm ever going to finish this readalong "on schedule"! LOL!!!

Almanzo took his own little milking-stool, and a pail, and sat down in Blossom's stall to milk her. His hands were not yet strong enough to milk a hard milker, but he could milk Blossom and Bossy. They were good old cows who gave down their milk easily, and hardly ever switched a stinging tail into his eyes, or upset the pail with a hind foot . . .

When Almazo had finished milking . . . [his] father went into Blossom's stall with his own pail and stool, and sat down to strip the last, richest drops of milk from Blossom's udder. But Almanzo had got it all. Then Father went into Bossy's stall. He came out at once and said,

"You're a good milker, son."

Farmer Boy would have been a great book for the Top Secret December Theme (which nobody cared to figure out, possibly because I was being insufferable with it) . . . but I got to it too late.

Chapters 1 to 7

The first difference I noticed between Farmer Boy and the "Laura books" is that Almanzo's father is quite well off in the world. Not that I would ever describe Pa as "poor"--but there's quite a difference between his small log barn and the three big buildings and barnyard on James Wilder's property. The second difference, of course, is that Mr. Wilder is also raising sons.

I don't know about Royal (who is, so far, as nondescript as Mary is in the "Laura books"), but Almanzo seems very eager to be just like his father when he grows up. Does he already strike you as unusual?

These days, child protagonists don't want to be like their parents. If they aren't outwardly rebelling, then they're pursuing interests that their parents often have no insight into. A huge cliche of the modern coming-of-age story is the parent determined to turn his child into another version of himself and needing to be taught (by the child!) that one must not interfere with the unique journeys of individuals. (Cue Free to Be . . . You and Me! soundtrack!) In contrast, Farmer Boy is shaping up to be a coming-of-age story as well, and Mr. Wilder is definitely trying to form Almanzo into the same sort of man he is--but this isn't a set-up for a father-son struggle. Laura Ingalls Wilder herself seems to agree that the one who knows what is best for a growing boy is his own father.

And what does this father think is best for his son on the latter's ninth birthday?

"There's something for you in the woodshed," Father said . . .

. . . [It] was a little calf yoke! Father had made it of red cedar, so it was strong and yet light. It was Almanzo's very own, and Father said,

"Yes, son, you are old enough now to break the calves."

Almanzo stays home from school that day and gives his pet calves their first lessons in bearing a yoke. It may be an interruption in his schooling, but it is an essential part of his education in a way most of his classroom lessons will never be. As Almanzo puts it, "He [does] not have to go to school when there [are] more important things to do."

As for school, the text barely mentions anything he learns there. We know that there are some words he can't spell properly, but we're even not told what they are! (As someone who once worked as a teacher, I see the huge snub--and I love it! LOL!) I suspect the only reason we get to read about it so much is that the new teacher Mr. Corse makes such a favourable impression on Almanzo that he gets a special moment to shine. But note that it's not because of anything academic that he teaches the boy, but for another reason.

Mr. Corse stepped away from his desk. His hand came from behind the desk lid, and a long, thin, black streak hissed through the air.

It was a blacksnake ox-whip fifteen feet long. Mr. Corse held the short handle, loaded with iron, that could kill an ox. The thin, long lash coiled around Bill's legs, and Mr. Corse jerked. Bill lurched and almost fell. Quick as black lightning, the lash circled and struck and coiled again, and again Mr. Corse jerked.

"Come up here, Bill Ritchie," he said, jerking Bill toward him and backing away.

If you've read this far, then you know that Bill Ritchie and his gang are such awful bullies that another teacher they attacked died from the beating they inflicted upon him. Before they came to school on the day of this confrontation, they bragged that they would do the same to Mr. Corse. So given that he just jerks two of them around with a whip, resulting in ripped clothes and some flesh wounds, I think he went rather easily on them. What say you?

There are so many other points to discuss about the first seven chapters of Farmer Boy, but this post is long enough as it is. I've started to think I should have reserved six months, and not two, just for the first five Little House books--but that can't be helped now!

What are your thoughts on Chapters 1 to 7?

1) Do you think that today's parents are relying too much on schools to do their job for them?
2) Do you think a child's rebellion is an inevitable part of growing up or just another modern shibboleth?
3) Would you want a teacher like Mr. Corse in your school or in your children's school?

Image Source: Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder


geeklady said...

1. Yes. It isn't necessarily bad, but the schools aren't actually doing the job right now and parents generally haven't noticed, which is bad for a whole lot of reasons.

2. Modern shibboleth. Also one of the top three crimes a writer can perpetrate upon his trusting reader is transplanting modern shibboleths into purportedly historical fiction.

3. I would love a teacher like that, but they are increasingly rare. There was one (actually an assistant principal) at my husband's old school. He was breaking up a fight and got bum-rushed by one of the boys in the process. But the AP was an ex marine and he dropped that boy faster than a three legged donkey on Saint Swithen's day. It was on YouTube for a while, but I'm sure it's been taken down by now. The video was probably the only thing which saved his job, though.

Sullivan McPig said...

Not reading along but I do want to add in on the discussion:
1 - Yes, parent rely too much on schools to raise their children for them, and even worse is that when a teacher actually does try to correct a child that the parents get angry.

2 - I think rebelling against your parents is from all ages, but not all children/teens do it. The Romans actually already complained about the wild youth who would come to nothing ;-)
And even though it's from all ages: you do need the opportunity and room to be able to rebel against your parents. If you grow up in a very small community where everyone has certain expectations of you it's much harder to find your own (new) path in life than when you live in a city for example.

Jenny said...

I'm glad your managing to read and enjoy these. I never could get into them.

Enbrethiliel said...


Geeklady -- Your story about the assistant principal reminds me of the time I wondered aloud to someone why modern men don't seem attracted to the teaching profession. He pointed out that these days, it's just too dangerous: too many chances of being fired or slapped with a lawsuit, just for interacting in a reasonable way with boys.

Sully -- Having worked as a teacher, I know what you mean! My favourite story is the time I was going to give a student a failing grade on an essay that was 90% plagiarised . . . only to have the student's mother tell me that her daughter did not deserve a failing mark because her daughter did not plagiarise the paper. The mother plagiarised the paper when she was doing the assignment for her daughter. =P

As for rebelling, I think it's a normal part of adolescence to want to stretch your wings and to test your boundaries. I just think that there were times when the boundaries young people could test were not limited to the rules and expectations of their parents. I'd have to do a lot more research to be sure, though!

Jenny -- It's funny that you should say that now . . . I just hit what I think are the most boring seven chapters of the entire readalong. LOL! I'm not sure what I'm going to say in the next post. =P

Oregon Gifts of Comfort and Joy said...

Hi! Thanks so much for stopping by to see me today.

I loved the Little House books when I was small, but they drive me crazy now. Pa was something else.

Kathy M.

Oregon Gifts of Comfort and Joy said...

I read 3 and did a post on them:


"Recent Reads" Laura Ingalls Wilder books

Kathy M.

Enbrethiliel said...


Hi, Kathy! =D Thanks for returning the visit!

When I started reading the Little House books, I did recall that you (and Lesa?) were quite critical of Pa; and I admit that I wrote some of my December readalong posts hoping to hook others with a similar opinion of him, just to add some spice to the discussion. So far, though, everyone seems to be a Pa fan!

And thanks for sharing the link to your post. =) I've already left another comment for you there!

Sheila said...

Farmer Boy might just be my favorite. Less poverty, a lot more good food. (Never read that book when you're hungry, LOL!) I would argue, though, that the Ingalls family IS poor. Laura avoids using that word, but as you travel through the books, you see that they really are very poor.

1. Obviously. I wrote a post a long time ago about Farmer Boy and unschooling ... do you remember it? http://agiftuniverse.blogspot.com/2009/11/thoughts-on-education.html I think that back in the Wilders' time, government schooling was a new enough thing that people thought of it as more optional and extra, not the thing that was going to raise your kids for you. I'm not sure when the shift happened -- perhaps when we made the switch from mostly one-income families to two-income families.

2. In some way, yes. But it doesn't have to be an angry, embattled rebellion. Sometimes it's just a matter of distinguishing oneself from one's parents. Read a little further; Almanzo does it too! His parents have a few plans for him that he doesn't intend to follow. But you're right to point out that the rebellion doesn't have to be against parents. It could just be the fight to learn new things. And I think a lot of the reason for teenage rebellion is that we don't give our kids any real-life challenges to measure themselves against.

3. You don't mention that Mr. Corse is actually a really gentle soul who is terrified of the bad boys. Mr. Wilder is the one who suggests the strategy and lends him the bullwhip! It's funny that we talk about "how rebellious schoolkids are these days" when there have been stories like this for generations. There is even an early Christian martyr who was killed by his own schoolboys. Kids can be dangerous in large groups!

Since Mr. Corse is only violent with the violent and the soul of gentleness and patience with the little boys, I think he's fine. It's the ones who think a bullwhip is the cure for every problem that I can't stand. It's too easy to get distracted by the troublemakers and fail to notice that 95% of kids really are just looking for a chance to succeed. It took me too long, as a teacher, to come to this realization.

But the real solution, in my mind, would be to get rid of the school and let Almanzo keep learning math in terms of hay bales. But you knew that about me already.

Enbrethiliel said...


Oh, the food! Last night, I deliberately made myself a sandwich and some banana pancakes before sitting down to read the next seven chapters. =P

I guess the reason I don't think of the Ingalls as poor is that they have so many resources at their disposal and can eat quite well. (Their innate dignity and Ma's insistence on keeping up manners also helps.) I live in a modern big city, and when I hear of "poor" people, I think of families going through the trash for scraps. But these are probably just semantics now.

1. Thanks for reminding me of that post. I vaguely remember you writing about unschooling, but not specifically about Farmer Boy. If I only skimmed that post the first time, it was likely because I hadn't read the book yet and didn't want any big spoilers!

Parents who think that everything is the school's job is a big problem here, too. What's interesting is that I don't think anyone will answer my first question in the negative, but that many will add that the economic situation means that parents are forced to let schools take over a little because they themselves just don't have the time to see to their children's education. And yes, I do see another connection to the switch from one-income to two-income families.

2. Well put! And I'll be looking out for that part in the story!

3. There were two reasons I held back the full story about Mr. Corse: first, because I knew that anyone who had read the books would know it; and secondly, because I wanted to see if I'd get a raw reaction from anyone who hadn't read the books. =P

What I find really interesting is the way Mr. Wilder sizes up Mr. Corse. He becomes like a mentor to the younger man, but he insists to his Almanzo that Mr. Corse is enough of a man to resent anyone else interfering with his job. It seems that there is a fine line between mentoring and interfering, but Mr. Wilder doesn't overstep it.

Bob Wallace said...

The Wilders weren't "poor." If they were poor, 99% of the people in those days were poor.

The Wilders supported themselves on their farm. People who worked for others were called "wage slaves" in those days.

Almanzo hated school, rarely attended, and grew up just fine without it.

Enbrethiliel said...


Thanks, Bob, for helping me to articulate what I mean. The Ingalls may not have had a lot of money, but they weren't needy or dependent on others.

Sheila said...

I think in On the Banks of Plum Creek, you see more of their poverty as they really struggle to support themselves. They are well enough off in the Big Woods, doing okay in the Prairie, but they lose a lot when they get forced off their land. On the Banks of Plum Creek is kind of the low point, I think. Though The Long Winter is the one I hate the most. There is so much suffering in that one. (Though the very worst stuff in the Ingalls' life gets left out! After you read the books, it's worthwhile to read a bit of background information.)

Shaz said...

The Long Winter is actually my favourite, with On the Banks of Plum Creek running a close second. Very hard times for the Ingalls, but they got through it which always inspires me.

I'm really looking forward to the publication of Pioneer Girl, Laura's autobiography written some time before the Little House books. It includes many things she left out of the children's books (and with good reason I think).

On the subject of the Ingalls being poor ... I think there were times when they were dirt poor. But I also think Laura didn't feel poor, so it's not a big deal in the books.

Enbrethiliel said...


Oh, I can imagine that lots of things were left out of the Little House books!

The Ingalls don't have much, but they don't seem needy at all. I did wonder a bit at what they considered full meals (only bread and honey at one point, if I remember correctly), but no one seemed to go hungry. (Admittedly, Laura might have been content without realising if her parents were skimping on their own food.)

And who could forget Mary and Laura overjoyed with their Christmas presents in Little House on the Prairie? But this is probably a bad example. I can see that Pa's, Ma's and Mr. Edwards' tears at their innocent delight were due less to sentiment or nostalgia than to the children being so happy despite being so poor.