I forgot that I hadn’t covered Farmer Boy, which focuses on Laura’s future husband Almanzo back in New York state, and is one of the most purely fun books around, although it starts out DARK. How dark? “Trudging literally more than a mile through snow so you can get to school and maybe watch your teacher get beaten to death by a bunch of homicidal teenagers” dark. (Why are the teenagers homicidal? Never explained. My guess is that living in upstate New York in the 1800s has a lot to do with it: that place is bleak as fuck even now that there are highways and cable.)
(Sorry, upstate New Yorkers. Not your fault that you live in Snowpocalypse World.)
To get a touch Too Real here, it was weird to read this in the 1980s/early 1990s, where kids randomly killing their teacher was a bizarre thing that I and those I knew, at least, had never really heard of…and then re-reading it now and thinking, well, at least they don’t have guns.
So yeah: five pages in and BAM student-teacher violence. This is a touch misleading, because what happens is the teacher boards with the Wilders, borrows Mr. Wilder’s blacksnake whip, and goes Full Indiana Jones, minus graverobbing, on the teenagers in question. This happens within the first three chapters so that we can devote the rest of our time to horses and pie.
This is one of the most mellow books of the whole series. Interpersonally, Laura may have been more reluctant to portray Drama in her husband’s family, plus Almanzo had more non-infant siblings and his brother was four years older.
(Laura and Mary are two years apart. My sister and I are the same age, and it was the fucking Godfather Trilogy when we were growing up: due to gender roles until very recently, and certainly in the 1800s, Almanzo and close-in-age sibling Alice wouldn’t have been compared to each other as much.)
A big difference is in the circumstances, though. Upstate New York may be a bleak and icy wasteland for a lot of the year, but settlers had occupied it a lot earlier than Wisconsin. Also, Mr. Wilder was rich: dozens of cows and horses, a big house and barn, and, and I do not exaggerate here, ALL THE FOOD. The whole Little House series is food porn (or lack-of-food survival porn in The Long Winter) but Farmer Boy is the Prospectors of Ass Canyon III to the other books’ soft-focus Cinemax. Between the Wilders’ prosperity and the gender stuff that means FB’s main character does a bunch of hard physical labor without running into any “ladies don’t eat” expectations, hoooooooly shit.
I still want to try fried apples ‘n’ onions. And vinegar pie. And popcorn with milk.
Moving away from the food, the difference also comes through in the descriptions of Nature. In Laura books it’s either gorgeous and enchanting or downright horrific: there are domestic bits, many of them in Big Woods, but the general idea is that everything beyond a certain ring of householding is incomprehensibly beautiful, alien and malicious, or both. Nature here is neither fairyland or Cthulhu, but works on a much more human scale: lots of lovely descriptions, mostly of farming, and a bit comparing the weeds to an enemy army and calling Almanzo a “good little soldier.” There’s definite hostility, but not the OH MY GOD WHAT THE FUCK quality you get in a lot of the others.
It’s also a much less directly racist book than most of the others (Big Woods seems mostly okay except for a dubious song, and I can’t offhand think of racist bits in Plum Creek or one of Little Town/Happy Golden Years, whichever one doesn’t have the horrifying minstrel show scene). Not completely non-racist, Mr. Wilder makes a speech that comes off suuuuuper Manifest Destiny, but still, it’s a nice change.
Farmer Boy introduces the Horses: They’re Fucking Awesome theme that will also run through most of the books (Long Winter is an outlier in a lot of ways), and verges on Boy And His Horse story for much of the second half. Almanzo, who’s not allowed to mess around with colts on the grounds that he’s nine, falls completely in love with one called Starlight (who is not Rainbow Brite’s horse in disguise, tragically) and spends a fair amount of time PINING.
Unlike many of the books that come afterwards, maybe because it’s autobiographical, this one doesn’t have the main character do something stupid for Drama. Almanzo doesn’t keep trying to interact with Starlight until Disaster Occurs, he doesn’t secretly get to know him and develop some kind of weird soul-bond and SHOW EVERYONE. He…pines, and hints, and comes close to breaking the rules a time or two and gets in trouble, and then fights his cousin Frank (who exists to be gormless) to keep him from messing with the colts, and then at the end of the book Mr. Wilder says he’s grown-up enough to start training Starlight, and yay!
It really does feel like a nice, organic coming-of-age process, and I prefer it to the outsized doofiness in other novels.
This whole book, by the way, features Almanzo’s oldest sister Eliza Jane at her best, which…is not saying much. She’s much better here than as an adult later on, but she still spends most of it being some type of pill or other, and then she saves Almanzo from trouble but it’s trouble that she at least contributed to, so I don’t know that it counts.
Again: still better than in any other book, which demonstrates the kind of Being a Petty Bitch that I have to admire Laura Ingalls Wilder for, despite her other views.