Farmer Boy grows up

After reading Little House in the Big Woods, instead of continuing in the usual order with Little House on the Prairie I turned to Farmer Boy, which was actually written second though it’s usually read third. It takes us from Laura’s family in the big woods to the family of her future husband, Almanzo Wilder, who own a large farm in upstate New York.

Like Little House in the Big Woods, Farmer Boy describes the annual arc of life for the family, beginning in the winter during Almanzo’s first season at school, through spring planting, summer heat and the fall harvest back to winter again. Also like in the previous novel, Farmer Boy consists for the most part of a series of scenes of farm life, with the same kind of description. We watch Almanzo’s mother bake and weave and make butter and fry doughnuts; Almanzo’s father teaches him to cut and store ice, thresh grain, braid a whip, make shingles, drive a team of oxen. But in Farmer Boy there is a single goal knitting together everything that Almanzo does in a way that doesn’t happen with Laura: Almanzo does it all so he can prove he is old enough to have a colt.

He has plenty of contact with animals. He has his own team of calves, Star and Bright; he’s allowed to feed the gentler, older horses; and he milks the cows. But “[a] boy who didn’t know any better might scare a young horse, or tease it, or even strike it, and that would ruin it.” Almanzo knows that he does know better, but nothing seems to get his father to believe that, at least not yet. He rises every morning at dawn, eagerly takes on as much farm work as his parents will allow (trying to get out of school to stay home and work on every occasion), and perseveres to make do without his father’s help on almost every occasion, but those handsome colts remain frustratingly out of reach.

The constant presence of the colts in Almanzo’s mind give the book a more novelistic feel, and my theory is that Wilder really does use them as a tool. I don’t know how planned-out the series was, whether Wilder knew she would write so many books about her own family, but she writes only one about Almanzo’s and it aims to mythologize the whole of his growing-up in a single year in a way that Big Woods does not attempt at all. Laura’s character develops in that book, but to nowhere near the extent it will develop over the course of the next few volumes. But for Almanzo, this one year of aging encapsulates much more and ends, in a somewhat stylized way, with his dream coming true and him symbolically becoming an adult.

Wilder will give Laura a goal of her own in Little House on the Prairie, seeing a papoose, which will also be fulfilled at the end of the novel. The realization of this goal is a bit different; rather than literarily wrapping up the whole of Laura’s life, it leads her to a more particular realization about herself. The technique is a bit more subtle there, I think.

2 comments to Farmer Boy grows up

  • This is so interesting. Wilder starts with the simple but useful, and meaningful, seasonal form. She repeats it in the next book, this one, although with a shift in purpose. She repeats it again in the next one, but as parody – she deliberatly smashes the structure.

    Do we read children’s books as a chronicle of an writer’s development? How she learns to use various devices, how she grows in confidence and craft? We obviously should read Wilder that way!

  • Yes, we should. It’s really striking in fact. And then after she’s taught us what she knows, she teaches us how she learned it. That spunky, self-reliant little girl is really a Real Writer.