15 January 2013


"Two or Three" Book Club, Meeting 32

No discussion of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Farmer Boy is complete without a nod to all that food! I'm letting Christmas dinner be the pinnacle of the Wilder family's meals, but I wouldn't have said no to any chance to sit at their table.

He looked at the crisp, crackling little pig lying on the blue platter with an apple in its mouth. He looked at the fat roast goose, its drumsticks sticking up, and the edges of dressing curling out. The sound of Father's knife sharpening on the whetstone made him even hungrier.

He looked at the big bowl of cranberry jelly, and at the fluffy mountain of mashed potatoes with melting butter trickling down it. He looked at the heap of mashed turnips, and the golden baked squash, and the pale fried parsnips.

He swallowed hard and tried not to look anymore. He couldn't help seeing the fried apples'n'onions, and the candied carrots. He couldn't help gazing at the triangles of pie, waiting by his plate; the spicy pumpkin pie, the melting cream pie, the rich, dark mince oozing from between the mince pie's flaky crusts . . .

Okay, that's it. I need to take a break and eat something before I feel as if I'm starving to death--a familiar feeling from these two weeks of reading Farmer Boy. =P See you after the jump.

Chapters 22 to 29

The Wilder family may be very self-sufficient, hiring extra hands only because they themselves don't have enough; but it turns out that there is one thing that they cannot do for themselves! Who knew that shoe making was such a specialist skill?

Mother was worrying and scolding because the cobbler had not come. Almanzo's moccasins had worn to rags, and Royal had outgrown last year's boots. He had slit them all around, to get his feet into them. Their feet ached with cold, but nothing could be done until the cobbler came.

It's not nice to be at the mercy of other people, even when those others happen to be quite nice themselves. If making shoes were only something anyone could do--and do well--it's clear that Mrs. Wilder would take the trouble to make her own children's footwear rather than be one of many clients on a cobbler's list. That's probably why she has such a hard time accepting that her firstborn child feels so differently. But let me set that up properly . . .

Ever since the chapter "Independence Day" (tackled, sort of, in Meeting 31) the link between farming and freedom has been clear. Now it's suggested that even in this land of liberty, only farmers may really call themselves free. In fact, it looks downright feudal when the sons of Mr. Wilder's hired hands find their place (find their level?) as his son's hired hands.

John and Joe stood near the ends of the log. They put the sharp edge of their cant-poles against it, and when they raised the poles up, the cant-hooks bit into the log and rolled it a little. Then Father caught hold of the middle of the log with his cant-pole and hook, and he held it from rolling back, while John and Joe quickly let their cant-hooks slip down and take another bite . . .

Almanzo put Pierre and Louis at the ends of a log, and he stood in the middle, like Father . . .

Yes, like father, like son. Or as Pierre and Louis might say, comme pere, comme fils. The implication seems to be that Lazy John and French Joe did their sons a horrible disservice by not owning their own farms. Unless the boys choose a path different from their fathers', they will be as good as serfs to Almanzo their whole lives.

On one level, it bothers me that Almanzo will never see Pierre and Louis as his peers merely because their fathers don't have as much money as his father. On another level, I see why this is both sensible and just, no "merely" about it. Almanzo is better placed in the world than Pierre and Louis--and not just by chance. Trying to be politically correct by making the boys take turns being the one in the middle (or driving the bobsled) would only set them up for a harsher awakening in adulthood. When so much of your identity comes from your parents, you really should know who you are as early as Almanzo, Pierre and Louis's age.

So this is why Mrs. Wilder is so upset about Royal's decision to be a shopkeeper . . . and the wheelwright Mr. Paddock's offer to take Almanzo as an apprentice.

. . . She was all ruffled, like an angry hen. "A pretty pass the world's coming to, if any man thinks it's a step up in the world to leave a good farm and go to town! How does Mr. Paddock make his money, if it isn't catering to us? . . . Oh, it's bad enough to see Royal come down to being nothing but a storekeeper! Maybe he'll make money, but he'll never be the man [his father is]. Truckling to other people for his living, all his days--He'll never be able to call his soul his own."

In Mrs. Wilder's sense of the world, shopkeeper and wheelwright aren't simply different professions, no better and no worse than a farmer. They're lower positions. And don't give her that guff about "equality" when modern parents would be just as horrified if their children said, "What I really want to do is work for a rich family as au pair and tutor to its children." (Full disclosure: I applied for such a job, with such a family, several years ago. I think I lost out to a Scott Baio clone.)

I was surprised at the economic edge to Farmer Boy. There are a lot of serious issues here that are worth a closer look and a deeper discussion. But because I know my limitations--and because I'd really like to get to the next book in our Little House readalong--this blog isn't going to be the forum for that.

What are your thoughts on Chapters 22 to 29?

1. Do you think modern parents rely too much on social norms to give their children the sense of identity that used to come from them? (Yes, this is modeled after a similar question from Meeting 29.)
2. Assuming you're not a farmer, how would you answer the charge that your soul is not your own?
3. How much weight did you gain just from reading this book? ;-)

The next novel is On the Banks of Plum Creek. I hope to start posting about this weekend. See you at the next "Two or Three" Book Club meeting! =D

Image Source: Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder


Darwin said...

The class/economic ideas do seem to take a very strong place in Farmer Boy, maybe in particular because the Wilder family is more easy to classify than the Ingles family. (Pa, at various points in the books, runs his own farm, takes work with other people, builds, rents out space, etc.) It's all the more interesting in that Mr. Wilder did eventually hit an economic rough patch and have to sell the farm in NY and move further west. (I think to Minnisota, but I'd have to look it up, it's not covered in the books.) Also in light of the fact that Laura and Almanzo as adults had a hard time making farming pay.

That suggests that the agrarianism expressed in the books is all the stronger, to exist in the face of various conflicting experiences of both families. It's clearly very much a part of how Laura (as author) thought about the American identity.

On Food: When I was growing up my mom (a big fan of the books) had a Little House Cookbook which reconstructed a lot of the period recipes which are discussed in the books. Farmer Boy dominated despite just being one book out of the series because it's so focused on food. The prominance of the food in Farmer Boy always struck me as underscroring what Laura must have seen as one of the biggest differences between her childhood and Almanzo's: she was really impressed with how his family ate compared to her experience growing up.

(Really enjoying these posts, though I hadn't managed to come up with a comment before.)

Enbrethiliel said...


Those are such interesting facts in the backstory! I confess that I'm not doing much research on the historical Ingalls and Wilders, partly because I'm trying to read these stories as stories, before anything else. But it does change things to know that the Wilders don't get to remain "aristocrats" on their farm, and Almanzo's childhood was the economic pinnacle of the series.

Knowing that, however, makes me ask more questions that probably aren't answered in the "canon"--such as how the snobby Mrs. Wilder felt when she had to come down in the world a little. But there's the possibility that the Mrs. Wilder of the books is more of mouthpiece for Laura Ingalls Wilder rather than a faithful representation of the mother-in-law.

(I vaguely remember reading an article about Laura and Almanzo many years ago. It seemed to me that their marriage was the history of one bad break after another, and I wondered how they could bear it. I'm getting a sense of the same from the "Laura books" now, and a better understanding of why even hardships like losing your home don't have to get you down. But as you've pointed out, Laura's agrarianism isn't supported by these histories as much as it is in conflict with them.)

And I'm feeling hungry again. Excuse me while I grab some chow. =P

Darwin said...

You never see Mrs Wilder again in the books, and I don't know much of anything about it other than that they left NY and moved out to Minnesota (Wilipedia tells me this was nine years after the events of Farmer Boy) due to crop failures and economic problems. In Minnesota they had another farm and so far as I know stayed put there. My mom has read a couple of biographies of Laura, but I haven't read anything about her and Almanzo (outside of the books) other than on the web.

I'm sort of curious to find someday a couple of books which Rose Wilder Lane (Laura's daughter) wrote in the 1930s (at the same time the Little House books were coming out) which supposedly used some of the material about her parents in a couple of adult-oriented historical novels about the frontier. Looks like the titles are Young Pioneers and Free Land. Both, I gather, were big sellers at the time, but they're virtually unknown since then while the Little House books have become canonical.