What Jenny's Reading

{September 23, 2014}   Review: Farmer Boy: Or, a Brief Respite From Misery

Happy Monday!  I have another entry in the Little House book reviews!

Farmer Boy is the story of Almanzo Wilder, Laura’s husband. Or rather, it’s the story of a few years of his childhood, up in New York State. Even from the start of the book it’s very clear the Wilder family was way better off than the Ingalls family. At lunch, they had all sorts of things to eat, like fruit and turnovers and the like. The Ingalls girls were lucky to take bread and butter for their lunch at school.

Almanzo is eight here, and describes his clothing in painstaking detail. Well, Laura is describing his clothing, but you know what I mean. Honestly, it sounds like boys wore as much as girls did, back then, so nobody really got the better deal.

The kids go to school and on their way they pass a group of boys from something called “Hardscrabble Settlement.” Almanzo tells us these boys are bad, and tended to beat up teachers. The boys bragged that the teachers never lasted more than a year, so I guess Almanzo is learning Defense Against the Dark Arts at his school.

I guess no one thought to put a stop to this. Maybe it wasn’t bad to beat people up in those days? Why would you call a place “Hardscrabble”? It’s just asking for trouble.

Almanzo’s father has three barns. Three! Yeah, they were definitely better off than the Ingalls family. And they eat so much for dinner! The teacher is there to stay with them, but I don’t think this is a special dinner. They get beans and pumpkin and ham and pie and all sorts of things, just for regular dinner. Then, later, they pop corn and have apples and cider with popcorn. I think the Ingallses would’ve just about died to see so much food for just one meal.

Almanzo eats his popcorn and says you can fill a glass of milk up and the same size glass of popcorn, and put them together and the milk won’t spill over the glass. I am weirdly intrigued by this and want to try it, but I don’t think I have any popcorn right now, and also I don’t drink milk. So I guess I’ll never know.

The Hardscrabble boys have decided they will gang up on the teacher soon, and Almanzo says something to his father about it. His father tells him to leave it alone, because it’s the teacher’s job, and once a person takes a job, they have to stick with it till the end. Which in this case is death. From teaching. Okay. I find Almanzo’s father’s perspective on life fascinating.

Well, of course the teacher doesn’t die. Quite awesomely, he has a huge whip that he uses on the Hardscrabble boys till they run from the schoolhouse, crying like giant babies. Ha ha ha! Suck it, you dicks.

And then we find out that Almanzo’s father was the one who gave the teacher the whip. Almanzo declares his father is the smartest, bestest, strongest man in the world. Not like he’s hero worshipping or anything.

For his birthday, his parents give him a yoke so he can break his young oxen. This sounds like a crappy gift to me, but I guess it’s better than a button string or a penny. He gets to stay home from school that day, too, to start working with the oxen. He does pretty well. Then he gets to spend the afternoon sledding down a hill on a brand new sled, and coming into the house to eat doughnuts and so forth. I am strongly reminded of Laura’s birthday, where she got some cakes and a song on Pa’s fiddle.

The next day, Almanzo stays home from school again, with his brother, to help cut ice. They go out onto the lake and cut the ice from the…um, ice. Almanzo almost slips into the hole, but is caught just in time. So we’ll never know if Almanzo has the same power to defy nature and the elements that the Ingallses have, I guess.

Sundays seem way less boring in the Wilder household than they do in the Ingalls one. Mother cooks, so she’s at least allowed to do that, and they do go to church, but it seems like a better experience overall. Almanzo does get into an argument with his cousin about his cousin’s stupid hat. He has one of those hats with the earflaps, and the earflaps button on the top. I think that sounds pretty dumb. Almanzo says he has better horses, at least, but Frank busts his chops and says they aren’t his, they’re his father’s.

They go home and eat, and then sit still in the sitting room. Okay, maybe Sundays are as boring for the Wilder family as they are for the Ingalls family.

You know, in a later book, Almanzo tells Laura that his mother is a lot like her mother. From what I’ve seen in this book, that is not true. Mrs. Wilder seems way nicer and more fun-loving than Ma.

Hey! The Wilders make maple sugar just like the Ingallses! Except they don’t throw a party, they just do it. Almanzo helps Father gather the sap and also hunts for “wintergreen” berries and eats them. To me, this seems dangerous, but I guess a kid back then knows what berries are poisonous and what aren’t. Anyway, it turns out that Almanzo’s sister Alice was going to school while he was helping Father, and she’s jealous. They spend the weekend eating wintergreen berries and gathering the leaves for Mother’s mint flavoring. Then there’s a super bizarre illustration in the book of Almanzo and Alice looking at each other, like kids who have a crush.

You know, Alice does remind me of Laura, a little. I mean, I’m just saying.

Unsurprisingly, it appears that Father is much better with finances than Pa. I mean, he would have to be, right? I’m better with finances than Pa, and I routinely impulse buy ridiculous amounts of things from Amazon. But Father made $500.00 on potatoes because he bought low and sold high. I guess potatoes were like stock in those times?

Or maybe they are cannibals, to read Almanzo’s description of how they grow. Make up your mind! What are potatoes supposed to represent, exactly????

They plant the farm, and it sounds exhausting. But especially for Alice, who has to wear a dress with hoop skirts while she plants. What the fuck! Even the Ingalls girls wore calico work dresses to work, and I can’t remember Laura ever mentioning wearing hoops while she worked in the house or garden. And she probably would’ve, since she didn’t like them all that much. I thought hoops were a fancy thing, not an everyday thing. Wow. Alice is carting around all those pounds of fabric and she never complains about it.

Next the tin-peddler comes, a guy named Nick who is not, as you might think, the Tin Man’s cousin, but a trader who makes kitchenware from tin and travels from place to place to trade. He trades for rags, which is somewhat strange. It turns out that Mother’s a pretty good bargainer, but then, she’s also working with a guy who thinks rags are currency, so maybe she doesn’t have a lot to brag about.

The tin-peddler had told them about horses being sold for good prices, so Father took care of his team and soon someone came to buy them. They got $400.00, with a $200.00 down payment. Mother was horrified about keeping that much money in the house. They were almost robbed, except they’d found a stray dog and fed it, and the dog protected the house in the middle of the night. What a nice story! I wonder if it’s true.

Almanzo is a pretty shrewd thinker himself, it turns out. They are sheering sheep, and Almanzo’s job is to run the shorn wool upstairs. He tells the rest of his family they won’t beat him, but they say they will since they have to finish before him. So at lunch he takes a sheep upstairs and hides her, and then tells them at the end of the day that he’s won, since he took a sheep upstairs and they hadn’t done their part. Ha ha ha. Father thinks this is a wonderful joke.

The family goes to a Fourth of July celebration. I have never understood the “stuck a feather in his hat and called it macaroni” lyric. Of course, I have an internet.

Apparently, a “macaroni” is some sort of ritzy, dandy hat thing that rich people wore. During the Revolutionary War, the British soldiers made up the song lyrics to mock the new Americans for thinking feathers were fancy, I guess. So it’s rudeness. But then, they are the ones who named a fashion after a pasta, so I think they are the idiots.

Frank, Almanzo’s troublemaking cousin, buys some lemonade and refuses to share with him. Jerk. Almanzo asks his father for some money to buy some, and Father does give it to him – actually more than he asked for, after he was able to explain to Father what the half-dollar was actually worth (a bushel of potatoes). So he bought a pig instead of lemonade. Ha ha, suck it Frank!

Then comes a time when Mother and Father decide to take a vacation, and they don’t take the kids with them. This is weird to me, but whatever. So they leave Royal and Eliza Jane in charge with Almanzo and Alice to help.

I was about to type, “Remember when Pa and Ma left Laura with the girls for a week” and then I realized that it hasn’t happened yet. That was in Little Town on the Prairie, which takes place chronologically after this book but that I’ve already read and written up most of the review. Suffice to say, it’s a very different experience for the Wilder kids than the Ingalls kids. The Wilder kids go absolutely nuts, eating all of the good sugar, ruining the wallpaper with stove blacking, and nearly killing Almanzo’s poor pig from starvation because they fed her taffy and her teeth were glued together.

Amazingly, the kids aren’t punished by Mother and Father for eating all the sugar. They manage to clean the house up well enough, and Eliza Jane even hides the spot where Almanzo blacked the nice parlor wall.

As an aside, I wonder what Almanzo is going to do with the pig. He named her Lucy, so it seems she’s more like a pet. But what else can they do with pigs, except kill and eat them? What is the point of raising pigs if not for meat? Maybe I don’t want to know. Maybe I want to believe she’s Almanzo’s pet.

Harvest time comes, and the kids are all busy in the fields. You know, Almanzo is constantly talking about how hungry he is. His father lets him roast some potatoes for him and Alice, and he idles by the fire, letting Alice work. He is rewarded by a burned potato rocketing out of the fire and smacking him in the face. Lesson learned, I think.

After harvesting, they all go to the county fair. Almanzo eats vinegar pie. The fuck is that? It sounds horrific. Hilariously, the first website that comes up when I Googled “vinegar pie” tried to prove that it tastes delicious. It appears to be made from apple cider vinegar. It’s a pioneer thing, for the winter when they didn’t have fruit but wanted something for dessert, and a mock pie in the same nature as a Ritz cracker mock apple pie. Wait, Ritz cracker mock apple pie? Why the FUCK would that monstrosity exist?

I mean, I can almost understand a vinegar pie. The pioneers wanted fruit pie, but I guess hadn’t saved enough fruit in the summer to make it. So they did what they could. Ritz crackers are processed and packaged, which means they didn’t exist until recently, when we had canned and frozen fruit and freezers.

Okay, I am done Googling dessert for the day I think. I will just eat my Reese’s Klondike and thank deity that I didn’t live in a time when vinegar pie and Ritz cracker pie were considered food.

Anyway. Almanzo had been raising a giant pumpkin for the fair. He’d fed it with milk and it was bigger than all the others. He wins first prize! Hooray for Almanzo! He is worried that he has cheated, but they tell him that he didn’t. Maybe this is something he should’ve verified before the competition.

Royal, Eliza Jane, and Alice go off to a fancy private academy. When they visit to have their shoes made (the cobbler travels like the tin peddler from earlier), Royal says he’s going to keep a shop rather than a farm, and Eliza Jane is a bitch to her father about drinking tea. Mother shuts EJ’s shit down pretty hard, and it’s excellent. EJ is a lot like Mary, isn’t she?

They all have a very lovely Christmas. Their gifts are way better than what Laura got, with Almanzo getting a new hat, candy, and a jackknife. They have family come and a big dinner, and they go play with their cousins in the yard. Frank is back, and somebody really needs to smack that kid around. He sucks. He spooks one of the horses, and tries to dare Almanzo into doing bad things. Luckily Royal hears and smacks Frank around, but he also smacks around Almanzo, for being a tattletale. Man, nobody could really win back then, could they?

After Christmas they do a bunch of boring stuff that Almanzo thinks is fun, like wood haulinzzzzzz……

Sorry! Dozed off there. They haul wood, and it’s boring. Oh, and they do stuff with hay, which is also boring. Almanzo has to go back to school for a little while, so he can learn math. I guess at the ripe old age of ten or nine or whatever, he already knows everything else he needs to know.

I mean, that’s probably true, for that time period. But it makes me a little sad.

After all the hay baling, Almanzo rides to town with Father to sell the bales. We find out that Father can lift 250 pounds with no trouble, and he’s also Sherlock Holmes in his spare time, as he deduces who owns a wallet stuffed full of cash that Almanzo finds on the side of the road. It belongs to a crotchety old guy who accuses Almanzo of being a thief. The shopkeeper threatens the man, Thompson, and makes him give Almanzo $200.00.

Almanzo gets to keep it, and Father takes him to the bank to open an account. Father tells Almanzo that while the money sits in the bank, each dollar makes four cents a year. I would make fun of the old timey interest rates, but considering how crappy they are currently I’m thinking four cents a year on the dollar isn’t too bad.

The shopkeeper then asks Father to apprentice Almanzo to him, to learn to make buggies and sleds and so forth. The shopkeeper apparently thinks a lot of a nine-year-old, because he says that eventually, Almanzo could have his business.
Father tells Mother about this at dinner in the evening, and Mother flips right the fuck out. Since Royal decided to be a shopkeeper, she thinks Almanzo should stay on the farm. According to her, shopkeepers were idiots who depended on other people for their fortune. As opposed to farmers, who I guess are better off relying on the elements. But it’s no big deal, because Almanzo has decided he wants to be a farmer, just like Father. Father gives him his very own colt, Starlight, to gentle and train.

The book ends on that very abrupt note. So what we’ve learned about Almanzo is that his parents are both very intelligent and his father is very wealthy. Almanzo wants nothing more than to be just like his father. So I guess my question is – spoiler alert! – how the hell did it end up going so wrong for him, when he had his own little claim?


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