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The Little House Books: Farmer Boy

Sometimes he woke in the morning and heard rain drumming on the roof. That meant he and Father might go fishing.

He didn’t dare speak to Father about fishing, because it was wrong to waste time in idleness. Even on rainy days there was plenty to do. Father might mend harness, or sharpen tools, or shave shingles. Silently Almanzo ate breakfast, knowing that Father was struggling against temptation. He was afraid Father’s conscience would win.

- Laura Ingalls Wilder, Farmer Boy

In my review of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, I didn’t have much room to talk about Farmer Boy, her second novel, which is about her husband Almanzo’s childhood on an upstate New York farm. Farmer Boy is independent from the rest of the series, although it does fill out the character of Almanzo (who returns as an adult in By the Shores of Silver Lake) and his sister Eliza Jane, who grew up to be Laura’s hapless schoolteacher.

My essay focused on the development of the character of Laura, who of course is absent from Farmer Boy. But I was sorry to leave that one out, because in addition to being a very entertaining book, it illustrates just how skillful a fiction writer Laura Ingalls Wilder was. The other books are difficult to categorize, falling as they do somewhere between fiction and memoir -- hence Wilder’s assurance “I lived everything that happened in my books.” Clearly, Farmer Boy is the exception; though she must have heard all about Almanzo’s boyhood, she wasn’t there. The Wilder children – so different from the Ingallses, but just as vivid and credible – are largely her invention.

The book has a lighter tone; unlike the Ingalls family, the Wilders seem free from financial worries. Almanzo is a classic “growing boy,” always either eating or hungry, and the book is full of lovingly detailed descriptions of food. The adult Wilder seems fascinated by her husband’s experience of growing up with plenty of everything instead of just enough.

However different their circumstances, the Wilders are like the Ingallses in that they live by a strong moral code and value industriousness. All the children work hard running the farm, and the throughline of the book is Almanzo’s love of horses and his need to prove himself responsible and mature enough to care for a colt of his own. It’s not nearly as dreary as I’ve just made it sound, though; it opens with a bang, right in the middle of a dramatic showdown at school between some local toughs and their new teacher and next victim. There’s also a wonderful chapter where Almanzo’s parents go away for a week and leave the kids to fend for themselves. (It turns out bossy Eliza Jane isn’t so bad after all.) And the sequence where Almanzo finally punches his annoying cousin Frank—on Christmas day!—is delightful.

The grownup Almanzo remains a bit of a mystery, at least in his role as Laura's beau. As I note in my essay, Laura never really falls for him; the reader waits in vain for her to suddenly discover she's in love. Their courtship is friendly and their engagement practical, not passionate. Wilder never even indulges in a wink when Almanzo first appears on the scene -- "Little did Laura know that someday she would see that young man on the hay wagon again" or anything like that. But she does make him out to be a hero in The Long Winter, where he courageously saves the town from starvation by riding out into the freezing snow to find a stash of grain. And before that, in Farmer Boy, Wilder gives loving shape to the child she imagines he must have been. It may be that the author was most comfortable showing her love for her husband indirectly, by immortalizing him in her work.

(See my previous post on the Little House books here.)

About the Author

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.



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It's been a while since i read the book, but i  thought he was kind of unheroic in the The Long Winter. Didn't he hide his seed grain behind a fake wall while the town was starving? 

If you want to leave virtual flowers and a note at his and Laura's graves:

I forgot to say that Farmer Boy is also a good introduction to Wilder for any young male readers who are under the impression that the Little House books are "for girls."

I'm only making inferences based on my grandmothers' families who homesteaded in northern Michigan, but I think romance was pretty far down the list of things women looked for in husbands in those days. You were looking for security in an insecure place and time, somebody who seemed healthy, steady, and knowledgable about animal husbandry and crop rotation. My great-grandmother's journal mentions her chickens and kitchen garden about ten times more often than it refers to my great-grandfather. When he does show up, there's merely a notation about what he got done that day ("Tom painted Mrs. Adgate's stoop." "Tom with farrier all day." "Tom with Mark at livestock sale.")

When my dad wanted to marry my mother, he said her parents asked a lot of no-nonsense questions about his financial acumen and job prospects of which they were suspicious because he drove a two-door coupe and wore loud ties. It sounds funny, but my grandparents thought romance was a pretty flimsy notion to build a married life on.

Well, the pioneer generation was a bit more reticent in talking about the things of the heart than ours is.  But I don't know that I would say that they weren't interested in romance.  My mother interviewed her grandmother (born in 1887) at length and recorded the story of her life.  It sounded as if she and great-granddad fell pretty hard for each other from the first time they met. Marrying at a young age was much more common.  That great-grandma married at 18, another one married at 16.

An interesting book for anyone interested in the life, loves, and concerns of pioneer women, let me recommend "Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey" (Lillian Schlissel and Carl Degler) which I may have refer'd on the other thread about LIW. 


His parents were none too restrained in naming their children.

Farmer Boy is free online.   Here's the page where little Almanzo's teacher, Mr. Corse, ox-whips big bad boys in the one-room schoolhouse:

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