I’m reading the Little House series aloud in the evenings. It’s the first time through the books for me, and each one puts me more in awe of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s writing skills. Carmon Friedrich describes the plain writing style that writers develop in their later years. There is a related sort of plainness that is found in the best children’s writing, where simplicity and directness are necessary to reach the audience. And since Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote these books for children late in her life (after she turned sixty), the double dose of plainness is very powerful.
Lately we’ve been reading Farmer Boy, the third in the series. The book tells of Almanzo Wilder’s boyhood, focusing on his eleventh year. One theme in the book is food—glorious food! Almanzo works hard and gets hungry, and the descriptions of his hunger—and of the satisfaction he feels as he gladly stuffs himself at the dining table—are palpable. Another theme is the work of a ten-year-old boy who yearns to have a farmer’s responsibilities and privileges but has yet to attain them. Almanzo idolizes his father, desperately wants to do the man’s work that his father does, knows in his heart that he is capable, but resigns himself to the long process of earning his father’s trust in order to be allowed.
Like the first two books, this one is also stuffed to the brim with straightforward accounts of life in times gone by, when people worked hard and ate well, when farmers were respected and the good ones regarded as wealthy, when the cobbler came by each year and stayed with the family for two weeks while making the year’s supply of shoes. Reading through the series, you pick up on interesting differences in the thinking of Pa Ingalls, not so wealthy and just getting his family established, and Pa Wilder, established and rooted and quite a wealthy member of his own community. For example, in the first book Pa Ingalls, capable of doing just about anything, hires men with a threshing machine to process the year’s grain, and at the end of the process exults over how much time that progress has saved him. In this book, Pa Wilder and Almanzo take three weeks to thresh the year’s wheat. Almanzo knows that hiring a threshing machine would make the job quick and easy, and asks his pa why he doesn’t do so. Pa Wilder replies that the threshing machine renders the straw useless, while hand-threshing preserves it. And besides, what exactly would they do with the time they saved, except spend it in idleness?
There are hints in Farmer Boy, but just hints, that modern thinking is encroaching on the Wilders’ life, and that to some extent the Wilders are willing accomplices. The older children are sent away to “Academy”, which is apparently a boarding school in town five miles away. On a visit home, the oldest girl comes back haughtier than ever, fussing about her father’s lack of refinement, while the oldest boy tells Almanzo that the farmer’s life is no part of nothin’, and that he plans to embark on the much better and easier life of a storekeeper in town.
Last night we finished Farmer Boy, and I was bowled over by the conclusion. The coachmaker in town likes Almanzo, and offers to take him on as an apprentice. Pa Wilder says he’ll consider it, and both he and Almanzo think about it during a long, silent ride home. At supper that night he tells Ma Wilder about it, who is shocked and flustered that Pa would even consider such a thing. That struck me as odd, given that they had sent the three older off to town for schooling. Then she says this:
“Well!” Mother snapped. 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? I guess if he didn’t make wagons to suit farmers, he wouldn’t last long!”
“That’s true enough,” said Father. “But—”
“There’s no ‘but’ about it!” Mother said. “Oh, it’s bad enough to see Royal come down to be nothing but a storekeeper! Maybe he’ll make money, but he’ll never be the man you are. Truckling to other people for his living, all his days—He’ll hever be able to call his soul his own.”
For a minute Almanzo wondered if Mother was going to cry.
“There, there,” Father said, sadly. “Don’t take it too much to heart. Maybe it’s all for the best, somehow.”
“I won’t have Almanzo going the same way!” MOther cried. “I won’t have it, you hear me?”
“I feel the same way you do,” said Father. “But the boy’ll have to decide. We can keep him here on the farm by law till he’s twenty-one, but it won’t do any good if he’s wanting to go. No. If Almanzo feels the way Royal does, we better apprentice him to Paddock while he’s young enough.”
Almanzo went on eating. He was listening, but he was tasting the good taste of roast pork and apple sauce in every corner of his mouth. He took a long, cold drink of milk, and then he sighed and tucked his napkin farther in, and he reached for his pumpkin pie.
He cut off the quivering point of golden-brown pumpkin, dark with spices and sugar. It melted on his tongue, and all his mouth and nose were spicy.
“He’s too young to know his own mind,” Mother objected.
Almanzo took another big mouthful of pie. He could not speak till he was spoken to, but he thought to himself that he was old enough to know he’d rather be like Father than like anybody else. He did not want to be like Mr. Paddock, even. Mr Paddock had to please a mean man like Mr. Thompson, or lose the sale of a wagon. Father was free and independent; if he went out of his way to please anybody, it was because he wanted to.
All the genius of Laura Ingalls Wilder is exemplified in this short passage. The directness and simplicity of the exchange between Ma and Pa Wilder. The ten-year-old detachment of Almanzo, observing his fate being discussed while knowing his place. The roast pork and the pumpkin pie and the sigh and the tucked napkin, all representing the goodness and satisfaction of the farming life. Almanzo’s childlike understanding of how a farmer is independent in a way that a merchant can never be, cutting straight to the core of the matter.
We’ve gone back and forth about whether to carry the Little House books through Draught Horse Press. Many people already own them, and many places already sell them practically at cost. On the other hand, they are exactly the sort of books we want to recommend to our customers, especially because they are able to counter modern propaganda about the miserable drudgery of agrarian living. While we’re deciding what to do, please know that we recommend them highly.
We particularly enjoy Garth Williams’ illustrations for the Little House series; often they are the perfect complement to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s spare and innocent descriptions. Here’s what you see when you turn the page about halfway through the description of Almanzo eating roast pork with apple sauce: