Farmer Boy

I read Farmer Boy yesterday. In Pamela Smith Hill’s biography of Wilder (Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life, South Dakota State Historical Society, 2007), Hill noted how striking it was that this was the next book Laura undertook after the success of Little House in the Big Woods. Wilder had already written an entire adult memoir of her own childhood, and therefore had plenty of material for a second book. But she decided against having her second book move forward with her own life story. Instead, she wrote a book about Almanzo’s childhood that would get boys interested in the series. It was a market-savvy choice, and Wilder carried it off well.

Like Big Woods there are plenty of life lessons described in Farmer Boy, but almost all have to do with traditionally male activities: crop-raising, bargaining, choice of vocation. Almanzo’s desire to take care of horses is lovingly described throughout, and as a result there is a clearer narrative arc than in Big Woods. Again, I am extremely amazed at Wilder’s writing ability. She describes things vividly, even lovingly: house, family, landscape, animals, work, food. Her prose ably evokes the world of a 9-10 year old boy. I was reminded once again why the series has such staying power.

The church is mentioned mainly in one chapter: Chapter 8, “Sunday,” which is similar to the single chapter on Sunday observance in Big Woods. Almanzo’s family dressed in their best clothes and took the sleigh ride to town to attend the morning worship service. The type of church is not mentioned. Almanzo’s experience with organized religion is described mainly in two vignettes: First, he must stay awake for a two-hour sermon and keep his eyes on the pastor, because Father will know if he doesn’t. (139) Second, during the afternoon he does “nothing at all” (141) while his mother reads the Bible in the dining room. “Almanzo just sat. He had to. He was not allowed to do anything else, for Sunday was not a day for working or playing. It was a day for going to church and for sitting still.” (141) These descriptions seem to be pretty far from “calling the Sabbath a delight” (Isaiah 58:13). As in Big Woods, the emphasis seems to be on the strictness of Sunday observance in the nineteenth century.

One other chapter mentions God, and it does so in several interesting ways. Chapter 13 “The Strange Dog” tells the story of Father’s sale of two horses for $200 each. He receives a down payment of $200, and it is too late in the day to take the bills to the bank. Mother is worried about having that much money in the house, but Father tries to calm her:

“‘The Lord will take care of us,’ Father said.

        ‘The Lord helps them that help themselves.’ Mother replied. ‘I wish to goodness that money was safe in the bank.’” (164)

Mother, of course, was not quoting the Bible, though many Americans have thought this quote was from scripture. I think that it is at least as old as Aesop’s fables, though it most likely entered American usage via Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac. (See this site for more on this.) Even more interesting is Mother’s observations at the end of the chapter, after the family feeds a stray dog and that dog guards the house from thieves during the night (Father finds fresh tracks in the woodlot in the morning):

“Mother said she would always believe that Providence had sent the strange dog to watch over them. Almanzo thought perhaps he stayed because Alice fed him.

        ‘Maybe he was sent to try us,’ Mother said. “Maybe the Lord was merciful to us because we were merciful to him.’” (167)

Thus, Mother’s beliefs seem to be that God was behind their deliverance, but perhaps their own activities marked the family as worthy of His care.

There are several other fleeting mentions of church, Sunday, and God (used as a swear) in the book. (215, 230, 235, 249). Jesus’ name is not mentioned.

One can interpret these as expressing Laura’s views about Christianity and the church or Almanzo’s and his Mother’s. Perhaps they just express Almanzo’s memories of his childhood. And the same caveats I mentioned in my previous entry about Wilder and Lane’s ideas of audience may apply here. However, the church and Christianity certainly are more present in Farmer Boy than Little House in the Big Woods.

As always, I would be glad to hear your comments.

(All page number references are from Volume 1 of the two volume set of the Little House books published by the Library of America in 2012.)

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Author: johnfry2013

Chair, Department of History, Trinity Christian College, Palos Heights, IL

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