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.)

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

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