In the not so distant (literary) future Laura Ingalls and Almanzo Wilder are going to meet and marry and hopefully live happily ever after. But for now the two are separated by distance though they are very much of an age. While Laura lives with her family in the deep woods of Wisconsin, Almanzo lives in New York state with his parents and three elder siblings. And by all appearances his family is happy, healthy and relatively well off. Farmer Boy, published in 1933, is a little bit of a digression from Laura's story begun in Little House in the Big Woods.
It's the late 1860s and Farmer Boy chronicles Almanzo's ninth year in very much a similar fashion as Little House--following the rhythms of the seasons. Unlike Laura's father who is a trapper, Almanzo's is a farmer so their lives are dictated by the planting, growing and harvesting of their crops. This was a time when to be a farmer was looked upon as a way of independence and self-sufficiency. Everything the Wilders have is what they grow or build or make themselves--from the food on their table to the clothes on their backs. They are not ever at the beck and call of anyone else--from wheel-wright to shopkeeper.
The story begins once again in January as Almanzo and his brother and two sisters trek through the snow to school. As one of the youngest pupils Almanzo must sit towards the front of the class with no desk and only his primer in hand. School is not, unsurprisingly, his favorite activity. He'd much rather stay on the family farm and he dreams of having his own horses to take care of and train. But for a boy as young as he is he must wait, as a poorly trained horse would be ruined, and they are too expensive for a boy so small. Instead he has two calves he must care for and train and will use to help in many of his chores.
Happily for Almanzo he spends more time on the farm helping than in the classroom. While his elder siblings often trudge off to school or when they eventually must go away for their schooling, he stays at home to help with the many tasks that farm life demands. Cutting ice in the coldest months ensures the family will have a fresh supply all year long. Everything has its season--from picking potatoes to berries, threshing wheat, felling timber, sheering sheep and selling horses.
He helps with making candles and watches his mother weave homespun and knit and later barter with the tin man for her household wares to get her through each new year. Little is bought in a store, and even their shoes come from an itinerant cobbler. Almanzo's first pair of boots are almost a rite of passage as he had only worn moccasins--growing feet mean boots are something of a luxury.
Daily chores can never be neglected and often they must be done at the same time each day in order to keep the animals on schedule. It's no wonder then that the appetite of a growing boy's such as Almanzo is so vast. And there is always such an abundance of food.
"The big blue platter on the stove's hearth was full of plump sausage cakes; Eliza Jane was cutting apple pies and Alice was dishing up the oatmeal, as usual. But the little blue platter stood on the back of the stove, and ten stacks of pancakes rose in tall towers on it."
"Ten pancakes cooked on the smoking griddle, and as fast as they were done Mother added another cake to each stack and buttered it lavishly and covered it with maple sugar. Butter and sugar melted together and soaked the fluffy pancakes and dripped all down their crisp edges."
If carbohydrates are fuel for the body, Almanzo needs them all as it's not unusual for him to spend his entire day working during a busy time of year on the farm from sunrise to sunset. It's not all work, however. A bountiful harvest means days of rest, too. When the County Fair rolls around in the fall the family dresses in their Sunday best and spends the better part of three days there. A prize pumpkin grown on a 'milk diet' means a blue ribbon for Almanzo, but so much fun actually begins to tire him and he is always happiest returning to the farm.
The Little House books are surely an idealized look at life in the late-1800s, but they are filled with warm happy memories of a way of life long gone. It's not always a perfect world--there are bullies in school, and mischievous cousins, and lessons hard learned. But it's such a fascinating look at what was a very different world. My favorite part was when Almanzo's parents went away to relatives for a week leaving the four children home alone (How old are the oldest siblings? Not as old as I imagine them to be, I suspect). They are told not to eat all the sugar and to keep up with the chores. It's every child's greatest desire--the minute the parents are gone to go and make ice cream and eat all the cakes, but trust me, never feed the piglet sticky taffy!
Pure escapist reading for a cold winter's day! If I think it's cold, at least I don't have to do chores in -40F weather! These books are absolutely delightful and I am sorry I never read Farmer Boy as a child. I thoroughly enjoyed it as an adult. I already have Little House on the Prairie at the ready. Laura and her family are moving from Wisconsin to Kansas. I'm ready for more adventures.