Hello, friends! Welcome to this month’s classics readalong discussion, where we’ll be gleefully chatting about Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder. For those new to the series, this is a standalone historical fiction novel based on true people and events, written by the author about her husband’s boyhood on his family’s farm in the late 1800s.
A reminder: You have ONE MONTH left to finish your classics readalong challenge for this year! Have you read and reviewed 8 books yet? Are you going to be able to? A little more on that below, plus info on the December/January books.
We have so much pie to
eat talk about, though, that we should just get started on our discussion!
Wendy: I wanted to do this one for our readalong because it’s a nice standalone–plus it’s my favorite of the series! (Followed by The Long Winter, but for very different reasons–this one’s all joy and donuts, whereas TLW is all starvation and suffering.) I think I’ve reread this book more than I have any other in my whole life, so it’s a pretty important book to me.
Kim: I haven’t read any Laura Ingalls Wilder books since I was a kid but I remember loving them fiercely! They were actually gifted to me by a very kindly old woman who saw me sitting and reading while I waited for the bus every day. I’ve always adored historical fiction and these are no exception. I definitely wasn’t prepared for how hungry I was going to be while reading, though!
Layla: Mmm, so: I was very, very excited to re-read Farmer Boy. It’s probably been between 10-15 years since I read these books, although I remember reading them obsessively as a child. I loved the Little House books – and some of the spinoffs? Did you guys read those? I also remember reading books about Rose’s childhood. I think my mother threw one of them out of the car window once upon a time because I wouldn’t. stop. reading.
Wendy: Yes, I have read most of the spinoffs! Some of them are quite good, though others…not so much, hah.
Layla: I also have to admit that I was never into Farmer Boy as much as I was into These Happy Golden Years. Who would grow up to be a romance reader? This kid! I also wonder if part of it is that I wasn’t terribly interested in stories about boys as a child. I wanted girls to be front and center in my fiction! That said, I loved reading this. Love love love. & I want to reread them all and, as I indicated on Twitter, also have a Laura Ingalls Wilder FOOD PARTY. There’s a cookbook. This could happen.
Wendy: I HAVE THE COOKBOOK. Obviously.
I loved all the Laura books more as a child because I identified with her–I too, was a stubborn tomboy! I do love Laura and Almanzo’s courtship later in the series so much. When a man drives through miles and miles of snow so he can do you a gigantic favor every weekend, he’s a keeper.
Because of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, I’m very interested in this period in our American history. The very foundations of our society are based on the ideals of independence and freedom, which began with the colonists breaking off from England, but are also very much in play with the Almanzo Wilder’s father’s way of thinking, as well as Charles Ingalls’, too. (Hey, she basically married her dad.) I’m basically pretty much uninterested in history unless it pertains to books, hah. I only ever want to learn about things if I can picture characters or people I care about living in that era.
Kim: Hah, Wendy! That is blasphemy to this history major! It’s so funny you say that since I always loved history because I saw it as “stories but real.” I often felt that same sense of excitement and wonder reading historical nonfiction as I do any old fiction. And my love of history almost certainly stems from my fondness for historical fiction as a child.
Wendy: Oh, I knew I was going to get in trouble with that remark. :D I think it’s harder for non-fiction history to grab me because a lot of depends on the way the story’s told–if it’s not engaging or well-written, I lose interest quickly. But I’m more patient if I’m specifically interested in that period, as I am with the pioneers. Tell me all about Ingalls types all the live long day.
Layla: Same. I want people to tell me stories about history. And I don’t really like historical nonfiction, unless it’s about very specific subjects I’m interested in (e.g., The Poisoner’s Handbook.)
Wendy: How fantastic are the parents? Almanzo’s reverence for his father shows in every anecdote in which he appears, though there’s also an appreciation for his quick, never-at-rest mother as well. (I’ve always felt that Caroline Ingalls was rather taken for granted, so it’s nice to see the sense of pride and respect the children and the husband had for Mrs. Wilder.) I so enjoyed Mr. Wilder, particularly the way he taught his son–firm and principled, without being overbearing, and always loving. My favorite is the pink lemonade incident–sure son, you can have a nickel for a drink if you want. But how about a half dollar bill you can invest instead? The looks on the boys’ faces must’ve been so satisfying! MY father gave me fifty cents.
Kim: I loved the pink lemonade incident so much! What a great way to teach the value of money. I feel like I can take a page or two out of that book. “Don’t buy that dress, Kim! That was 5 angry library patrons’ worth!” But anyway, I super loved both parents. Their tenderness and affection toward all their children is readily apparent. I mean, obviously, the threat of corporal punishment that comes up is super distressing but it is the 19th century and, thankfully, we never see that happen.
Layla: Their mom reacts so well when they eat all of the sugar! And both of the parents are so obviously proud of Almanzo and that comes up time and time again in the books. And Almanzo’s idolization of his father is really sweet. I liked how he was constantly ready to learn how to be a man. AT NINE. SERIOUSLY. Ahh, and that scene where he goes out into the barn and he tells the animals that he’s big enough to take care of them. Adorbs. (PS. I do actually think of buying dresses that way! Over the summer, when I was also working at the library, I was like, “Is this dress worth three hours of processing? y/n?”)
P.S. FRANK IS THE WORST. WHAT A BRAT.
Kim: Actually, I do have thoughts on the whole teacher business. What, what, what was going on? A teacher died before Mr. Corse?? He was Mr. Corse’s friend? What is this insanity? You can’t let students beat teachers to death! Was this really a thing that was happening in 19th century upstate New York? Why? This is terrible! Never over it.
Layla: I’m jumping in to say that yes, this scared the pants off of me. For some reason, I’d totally forgotten about this episode – and I don’t know how I could have done. Like … they murdered a teacher! And they were prepared to murder a teacher again because he scolded them for being late! Reading about this made me so anxious – in part, because you can really feel the tension in the room in Wilder’s prose: children are crying, no one can remember how to spell anything, and everyone is basically waiting for this teacher to get beaten to death in front of them. And the kid’s dad is celebrating! WHAT IS THIS I CAN’T EVEN.
Wendy: I know, it’s horrifying. I would love to hear more about the true facts behind this, I’m surprised other accounts of incidents like these have never come up in the non-fiction Laura books I’ve read.
While I know Farmer Boy is based on the many stories Almanzo told Laura about his boyhood, I can’t help but wonder how much of this is also colored by a young daughter-in-law’s awe of her in-laws as well. We were chatting on Twitter about the marked difference between the bountiful larder at the Wilders’ versus the Ingalls’ sometimes desperate attempts to make do, for example–there’s a striking disparity between the Ingalls’ lives and the Wilders’. I’ve read a lot of biographies of the author, and while I’m unclear on whether she ever actually met them and I don’t believe this subject is ever directly addressed, my heart also aches for how she must’ve hungered at the descriptions of food and shelter and warmth and stability, things most children take for granted but were always in doubt for her.
Layla: I did not notice this as a child but this really struck me as an adult reader. As a child, the past was totally foreign and also sort of an undifferentiated whole to me – I couldn’t or wouldn’t see the distinctions between Laura’s childhood and Almanzo’s. (I suspect I was just like, “Oh my GOD, they have to make SUGAR, what is this place and why do they eat headcheese here?”) But as an adult reading Farmer Boy alongside Little House in the Big Woods, it was heartbreaking in places. In Farmer Boy, they actually have so much from the harvest at one point that they have to build an additional shelter to hold it. Crazy.
Wendy: I read that a Laura author–I believe it was either Wendy McClure or Lizzy Skurnick–visited the site of the Wilder homestead and felt tears come to her eyes when she saw the big barns filled with windows, because she remembered how very dear a single pane of glass was to the Ingalls, and how they had to save up for a window for their mud hut. When I visited there a couple of years ago, I remembered that and was overcome by that same sorrow. But the happy thing is that she achieved such great success later in her life, and enjoyed both security and appreciation for her books.
Wendy: And SPEAKING OF FOOD. :D Did we not pick the most perfect book to read right before Thanksgiving? There is so much awesome food porn in this story! Potatoes roasted in the fire. Juicy wintergreen berries dug out of the snow. Stacks of pancakes with maple syrup and melting butter. PIE PIE PIE, SO MUCH PIE!
Kim: Absolutely perfect choice! I was thinking how this book needed a label: WARNING DO NOT READ WHILE HUNGRY. I super loved the very cozy popcorn scene too!
Layla: I was intrigued by the idea of popcorn and milk. That said! Can we discuss the food we most want to eat? This was a major part of my readerly enjoyment here. For me, it was all of the casual pie-eating. Almanzo is shearing sheep and eating pie. Almanzo is going to the fair and eating pie. It’s a Tuesday; let’s have some pie! All household chores should routinely be accomplished w/ pie, as in this book. And I also loved how he routinely ate at least two slices of pie. Yes and please.
Wendy: PIE PIE AND MORE PIE.
Layla: Have some food porn:
“The egg-nog was made of milk and cream, with plenty of eggs and sugar. Its foamy top was freckled with spices, and pieces of ice floated in it. The sides of the pail were misty with cold.” I don’t even really like egg-nog but I would like to lick that bucket.
“He took a wedge of apple pie and went out to the pasture, smelling the clover and eating the spicy apples and flaky crust in big mouthfuls.”
“Almanzo ate the sweet, mellow baked beans. He ate the bit of salt pork that melted like cream in his mouth. He ate mealy boiled potatoes, with brown ham-gravy. He ate the ham. He bit deep into velvety bread spread with sleek butter, and he ate the crispy golden crust….and he ate plum preserves, and strawberry jam, and grape jelly, and spiced watermelon-rind pickles. He felt very comfortable inside. Slowly he ate a large piece of pumpkin pie.”
Layla: The part about him feeling “comfortable inside” kills me. Bahaha.
Wendy: I rather felt that way as I lay on the couch like a contented piglet after Thanksgiving dinner tonight! I totally, totally get Almanzo.
Layla: I would also like to discuss things I learned about from this book; first and foremost, how to make potatoes happen. Do either of you know if this is true? If you chop up a potato and plant pieces w/ the eyes on them, will more potatoes emerge? Science experiment, anyone?
Wendy: Yes, this absolutely is true! I looked it up long ago, and then I just read The Martian, in which an astronaut is stranded on Mars and he uses this same potato-growing technique to keep from starvation.
What I’d really like to know is how everybody figured this stuff out, and when they did it. The descriptions of farm life and work are fascinating to me. I love reading about all the chores and the amount of work that goes into this life they’ve chosen, and it’s interesting to hear the Wilders talk about how they’re at the mercy of the elements, and yet their independence from reliance upon anyone else makes the life worthwhile.
Kim: Man, was I captivated by the machinations of the farm work. It’s so interesting to see how the entire family works as a team to make a successful household. I wonder how much different life was, and what an appreciation you had for material things, when everything was so hard fought. It seems there is almost a sweetness in this way of life that we just don’t have now. I mean, I’m aware of the casual naivete of such a statement but the book is brimming with so much charm and bright and cheer that it’s hard not to get drawn in by that.
I also really loved the line about Mother’s butter.
“His mother was probably the best butter-maker in the whole of New York State. People in New York City would eat it, and say to one another how good it was, and wonder who made it.”
Which is exactly the sort of thought that still echoes today.
Layla: Not sure if this fits here, but was anyone else kind of puzzled by how absent the Civil War seems in this book. I used my Google-fu and it’s supposed to take place in 1866, right after the war’s end. And there’s speculation (at least, according to Wikipedia) that a church in Malone, NY, was one of the final stops on the Underground Railroad. And yet, there’s no sort of direct mention of the Civil War.
Wendy: YES. As rich as they are in detail, there are a lot of things missing from the Laura books, you have to read a lot of different things to piece together the timeline as well as to get a sense of the historical context. I’m not sure why she made some of the decisions she did, particularly in regards to something as major as The Civil War, although I do know she chose to omit certain things because she didn’t want to include them in a children’s book. Oh hey, do you think there was some issue over young men enlisting or not enlisting? Was Royal of age to go yet, and they didn’t send him or whatever? I have no idea. This bears some investigation.
Layla: I wonder if the war present in the book in some way through the book’s emphasis on individual liberty and freedom. (Also, I was unsurprised to learn that Rose Wilder Lane, Laura and Almanzo’s daughter, is one of the founders of the American Libertarian Movement.)
Wendy: Yep. That’s so interesting. Politics aside, I actually have very mixed feelings about Rose Wilder in general, but that’s a discussion for another day. I’ll go into that a bit more when I write my review for the two Laura biographies I’m reading.
Wendy: My favorite chapter is the one where the kids are left at home alone and they eat ice cream and cake and don’t do any of their work, of course! And poor Lucy the pig, standing sadly by the porch with her tail down because she has candy stuck in her teeth. Heeeee.
This is also the first time I liked bossy Eliza Jane–guess it makes sense since it’s also the first time Manzo seems to like her, too! And funnily enough, we find out in other books that she and Laura didn’t really get along when they first met either.
Kim: Oh that was my favorite chapter too! I really loved the sibling relationships and I had that line bookmarked where “Almanzo had never known before how much he liked Eliza Jane” So cute. And I loved that pig so much! The illustration of Almanzo feeding her was what truly drove it home. So, so cute. Poor little darling needed freeing from her candy trap! I really loved all of the adorable animals actually! Star and Bright were so high in my affections (and Almanzo was pretty high in my affections for naming them Star and Bright-how adorable!!) And how fitting that the book ends with Almanzo finding out he gets to keep the colt Starlight.
Layla: You guys and your books with illustrations. Grumble, grumble. I was really won over by all the descriptions of the horses! I could totally feel Almanzo being drawn to them like iron filings to a horse-shaped magnet. And his reverence and fascination for them, like when he’s standing in a field experiencing baby Starlight and trying desperately not to move and scare him.
The scene with the pig was funny, but um, it actually made me sad. She didn’t know what was happening to her! and she couldn’t squeal! I was also living in fear that she was going to be turned into bacon before the book’s end.
Wendy: Oh, I know. I’m very fond of pigs, and I’ve always wondered what happened to her–I was very sad when I found out what really happened to Laura’s faithful bulldog Jack. *sobs* But farmers have to separate affection and practicality when it comes to animals.
Layla: … what … happens to Jack? (Does he get eaten?!)
Wendy: Wellll…hah, no! Not eaten. But Pa apparently sold him with the ponies. I loved Jack in the books, so I was really sad when I found this out. There’s a scene later in the series View Spoiler »Do you remember this? When Jack is very old and he lies down and dies one night and Laura is filled with remorse for all those times she might’ve pet him and didn’t? SOBBING, SOBBING UNTIL THE END OF TIME. « Hide Spoiler That poignant little moment meant a lot to me, it certainly was one of the first times I’d encountered this in a book, so it was a huge adjustment to know that’s not what happened for the real Laura and Jack. But the fact that it did affect me so much is testament to Laura as a writer.
Layla: My favorite chapter was the sheep-shearing. Baby kittens and Almanzo tricks everyone. That sounded fun, but then again, so does eating ice cream and cake for an entire week.
Wendy: You can actually go see that barn if you like! It’s tiny, I cannot believe grown men were working in it. If you’re ever in upstate New York or near the Canadian border, I hope you’ll make a trip to see Almanzo’s farm. It’s the only Laura home that’s still in its original location, which is astonishing, given the very formative 150 years that have passed. I went two years ago and was moved beyond words at the experience of being there.
Wendy: I never saw it as a child, and I know I cannot take it as an adult, hah. Though occasionally I’m tempted JUST TO SEE. I hear the ending is explosive, heh.
Layla: <—- This is what you’re missing. Pa Ingalls, what a stud.
Layla: FIVE STARS. All the stars in the sky, really. I forgot how great these books are. (And also how history can be fun and stuff.)
Kim: Five stars!
Wendy: Five pie-sticky stars from me. Of course. <3 <3 <3
Further Reading: Check out Wendy’s Visit to Almanzo Wilder’s Farm
December Readalong: Little Women
The holidays are coming! It’s the perfect time to read the lovely story of the wonderful March sisters, since the book opens on Christmas Eve and it’s full of the cozy warmth of family and friends. Not to mention a fantastic heroine and a dramatic romance as well. Can friends become lovers? Hmmmmm.
Title: Little Women
Author: Louisa May Alcott
Discussion Date: Friday, December 19th
Little Women is one of the best loved books of all time. Lovely Meg, talented Jo, frail Beth, spoiled Amy: these are hard lessons of poverty and of growing up in New England during the Civil War. Through their dreams, plays, pranks, letters, illnesses, and courtships, women of all ages have become a part of this remarkable family and have felt the deep sadness when Meg leaves the circle of sisters to be married at the end of Part I. Part II, chronicles Meg’s joys and mishaps as a young wife and mother, Jo’s struggle to become a writer, Beth’s tragedy, and Amy’s artistic pursuits and unexpected romance. Based on Louise May Alcott’s childhood, this lively portrait of nineteenth-century family life possesses a lasting vitality that has endeared it to generations of readers.
This title is free for Kindle and should be easy to obtain in libraries as well. But snap it up soon, because it’s a very holiday-appropriate book, and you might have some competition for it! It’s also going to be interesting to contrast the lives of the March girls with Almanzo Wilder’s–they’re not that far apart in time or physical distance, and yet they feel totally different!
— If you’d like to get a head start on January’s book, we’ll be reading Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt, just in time for the book’s 40th anniversary.
— Don’t forget that next month we’ll also be officially taking stock of the readalong challenge, so now ‘s the time to finish up books and reviews if you haven’t already! Remember, you need to read and review at least 8 classic MG/YA books before the end of the year. Among those who qualify, we’ll also have some fantastic prizes to give away.
Photographs are by Wendy and Kim, and via IMDB.
All right, how many pounds did you gain reading about what Almanzo was eating? Is he as dear to you as Laura? Teelllll us! And we’ll see you next month!