05 January 2013


"Two or Three" Book Club, Meeting 30

Although no one has linked up a Farmer Boy readalong post yet, I happened to know that one commenter has a relevant post in his archives and was recently reminded that another has one, too! Click on their names to find out what Bob and Sheila think of what Laura Ingalls Wilder had to say about education in Farmer Boy!

And if you miss the "Laura books," then you'll be happy to know that Shaz is extending the possibility for discussion at her blog with Part 3 of her readalong posts on Little House on the Prairie.

"Father, I can't go to school today, can I? If I don't work those calves, they will forget how to act."

Father tugged his beard and twinkled his eyes.

"Seems as though a boy might forget his lesson, too," he said.

Almanzo had not thought of that. He thought a minute and said:

"Well, I have had more lessons than the calves, and besides, they are younger than I be."

Father looked solemn, but his beard had a smile under it, and Mother exclaimed:

"Oh, let the boy stay home if he wants! It won't hurt him for once in a way, and he's right, the calves do need breaking."

I don't know about you but the above cover with the Garth Williams illustration is my favourite of the Farmer Boy lot. Star and Bright look so sweet and lovely. And no other cover that I've found expresses the juxtaposition of Almanzo and the not-quite-broken calves half as well.

Chapters 8 to 14

After the isolation of the Ingalls on the prairie, the world of the Wilders seems bursting at the seams with people. Even their larger home seems more crowded than the Ingalls' one-room cabins, simply because there are more siblings bumping into each other. The one Laura Ingalls Wilder writes about the most (because Almanzo spoke of her the most?) is Almanzo's sister Alice, who is closest to him in age.

Almanzo asked her if she didn't want to be a boy. She said yes, she did. Then she said no, she didn't.

"Boys aren't pretty like girls and they can't wear ribbons . . . I like to make butter and I like to patch quilts. And cook, and sew, and spin. Boys can't do that. But even if I be a girl, I can drop potatoes and sew carrots and drive horses as well as you can."

"You can't whistle on a grass stem," Almanzo said.

The first time I read that exchange, I thought Almanzo had a weak comeback. What would he have said if Alice had been able to whistle on a grass stem? In his place, I might have tried to out-patch, out-cook, and out-spin her. I see why a division of labour along sex lines is necessary on a farm, but there's no reason a boy couldn't do some of those tasks as well as his sister. That was what I thought after reading that part, and it showed how widely I missed the point.

The point is not which of them is more skilled, and it is not that both of them should be more like the other. It is that Alice is very happy to be a girl and Almanzo is very happy to be a boy.

As for the other characters, we already know about the teacher Mr. Corse and the two hired men French Joe and Lazy John. In these chapters, we meet the latter's sons Pierre and Louis, as well as Almanzo's cousin Frank. Then there is Mr. Brown, the tin-peddler, who has an almost mythical air about him. He reminds me a little of Mr. Jonas, the junk man in Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine. But I hope you don't mind if I choose to focus on "the strange horse-buyer" now.

. . . Father had never seen him before. He was dressed in city clothes, of machine-made cloth, and he tapped his shining tall boots with a little red whip. His black eyes were close to his thin nose. His black beard was trimmed into a point, and the ends of his moustache were waxed and twisted.

He looked very strange, standing in the barnyard and thoughtfully twisting one end of his moustache into a sharper point.

Just look at those details! The only other character whose appearance is given that much attention is Mr. Corse--and that's because his slight stature in contrast to the bullies of Hardscrabble Settlement is relevant to the story. So it stands to reason that the horse-buyer's appearance is relevant to the story as well. The fact that he looks so out of place in the barnyard is enough to make us suspicious, and what happens later shows us that we were right to feel that way.

It's actually good story-telling: his sense of style is the first thing that sets us on edge, and then other events and dialogue in the chapter keep us jumpy until we learn the truth the next morning. But the stereotyping bothers me a bit. This is the kind of story a child would remember very well, so there's reason to believe that the horse-buyer's appearance was burned into Almanzo's memory and Laura Ingalls Wilder didn't just make up the details. I just read the emphasis on the horse-buyer's "citified" look as a way of moralising about those who don't work on farms . . . or even a way of making them "Other."

I'm also thinking of town boy Frank's "store-boughten" cap that came all the way from New York City. Both Almanzo and Royal want one like it, and Almanzo is a little sad that his mother's handmade caps are of such good quality that she would never let him spend fifty cents on a hat like Frank's. Granted, the Wilder brothers admire its interesting design rather than the fact that it is store bought and city made, but it's a status symbol nonetheless.

Yet the envy may go both ways. Frank may be taunting Almanzo by saying the latter will never have a colt of his own . . . but it's really Frank who will never get to have one, isn't it? I wouldn't be surprised if we see Frank again in a future chapter, turning green at the sign of Almanzo with a colt. There may be huge benefits to the trade off of living in a town, but not so much from the perspective of a boy!

This is another hastily written post . . . but you all are so much better at discussing Laura Ingalls Wilder in the combox or on your own blogs than I am, so I don't feel too guilty! ;-)

What are your thoughts on Chapters 8 to 14?

1. For women: When you were a child, what made you happy to be a girl? For men: When you were a child, what made you happy to be a boy?
2. Do you think the emphasis on the horse-buyer's appearance feeds an unfair stereotype about city people?
3. If you grew up on a farm, what did town or city children have that you really wanted? If you grew up in a town or city, what did farm children have that you really wanted?

UPDATE: Shaz has put up her catch-up post, Farmer Boy (Part One)!

Image Source: Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder


Shaz said...

Late again, but I finally got a post up!

I love Alice, but it's Eliza Jane that always stands out to me. I don't really like her (neither did Almanzo), but still find her absolutely fascinating.

Enbrethiliel said...


I just got to the chapter with Eliza Jane's big role and I know what you mean. She is fascinating. =)

Thanks for linking up again, Shaz! I've already updated my post and will go to comment on yours now.