Review: Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder

At the beginning of summer break this year, I decided to endeavor to read the Little House series to my three daughters.  I have such fond memories of reading these books when I was growing up, and I’ve been waiting for a while, actually, for my girls to get to an age where I thought they could appreciate the adventures of a frontier girl that I so loved as a girl.

This undertaking, it turns out, is taking quite a bit longer than I had anticipated – given that it took us me from June until the end of October to get through the first two books.  Two of my three girls lost interest quite a while back; it’s possible they’re still too young to appreciate Laura Ingalls Wilder, I suppose.  Or maybe its’ not their age, but their general interests; maybe girls nowadays, in the age of all things technologically advanced, are just not interested in the quaintness of frontier living.  I don’t know.  In any event, only one of my daughters (age 7) has stuck with me on this.

So we curl up in a cozy chair and I read aloud to her, a chapter at a time.  But not every night, because life is full and busy and I often just fail to make the time for simple pleasures like this.  Which is the main reason it’s taking so long to get through these books.

Anyway, Farmer Boy is the second of nine books in the series, and the only one devoted to telling of Almanzo Wilder’s (Laura’s future husband) childhood.  Growing up on a well-to-do farm in upstate New York, young Almanzo pines for a colt of his own, but Father doesn’t think he’s old enough or responsible enough.  Throughout the book Almanzo tries to prove himself, and along the way we get a window into his life: going to school part of the year, helping plant and harvest crops, hauling timber, and caring for livestock.  Even for a well-to-do family, there is much manual labor to be done, and everyone must pitch in.

I have to say that the thing that probably intrigues me the most are the frank descriptions about discipline and how children were expected to behave back then.  Such a departure from what is expected of kids nowadays!  Imagine a child knowing they must behave and not whine or complain for fear of getting their hide tanned!  I kind of think tanning of hides needs to make a comeback!

A lot of it was tedious reading, I’m sad to say.  Some of it reads almost like an instruction manual; I swear I could build my own bobsled from the ground up with the detailed descriptions outlined in Farmer Boy.  This made it feel like somewhat of a chore to read.

Still, at the end when Almanzo finally gets his colt, I had trouble reading aloud because of the hitch in my throat.

We’re moving on to the next book now, Little House on the Prairie, and hoping for a little more excitement.


Review: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott


That’s not a contented sigh, but a rather disappointed one.  Disappointed in the book after all these years, and disappointed in myself for not loving it as much as I did as a kid.

I think the first time I read Little Women, I was 9 or 10, and I was enthralled, so much so that I reread it several more times before I reached adulthood.  Now, it’s been many years since the last time I read it, and when a fellow book club member chose it as our November selection, I was excited to have an excuse to read an old favorite.

The edition I have (pictured) includes a lengthy introduction which gives a biography of Louisa May Alcott and discusses how the story parallels her real life, as well as analyzes the characters, themes, and mood of the overall story.  Basically, Little Women is loosely based on the author’s own adolescence and young adulthood, but it glorifies it.  For instance, Mr. March, the father in the story, is absent through a good portion of the book, off doing heroic chaplain work for the Civil War.  In real life, Louisa and her three sisters’ father was largely absent, but for far less honorable reasons – mostly he was chasing losing business ventures and leaving his wife and daughters to fend for themselves.  The analysis in the introduction also raises some interesting questions, such as: if the family was so poor, why did they have a live-in servant (and I can’t figure out if Hannah, the servant, is black or white; the story takes place during the Civil War . . . the Marches are Yankees.  The story never says whether Hannah is black or white, and I always assumed she was white, but when she is shown to speak in the book, it is with the same stereotypical black dialect of the period)?  And, was Jo and/or Louisa herself a lesbian?  Jo is the character the author created to represent herself, and though in the end Jo marries, throughout the story she disdains all things feminine and acts as much like a boy as she can get away with, and truly wishes to be a boy, and is mostly repelled by the idea of marriage and romantic love.  In actuality, Louisa May Alcott never married.  Just interesting things to wonder about.

Little Women was originally published in two parts in 1868 and 1869, and combined into the single volume most well-known today in 1880.  So it goes without saying that the writing style – descriptions, conversations, etc. – is reflective of that era.  The first word that comes to mind to describe the story as I read it now, as opposed to when I read it as a young girl, is tedious.  Everything seemed to run on for far too long, with too much detail, and all in a Victorian landscape that, frankly, bored me.

The story itself, if you aren’t familiar with it, is of four sisters in adolescence during the Civil War, and the trials and tribulations they undergo over a ten-year period.  Jo (short for Josephine) is at the heart of the story.  With each of them we see evolution of character, but they’re all so saintly and pious, it was hard for me to swallow.  While they get into scrapes and face moral dilemmas, the entire story seems to revolve around these four girls being as virtuous as humanly possible.

I know as a girl, I thought Jo quite the heroine – a rebel for her time, she flies in the face of propriety by cutting her hair short, whistling and running about like a boy, and using slang (gasp!).  Now, in my jaded adult state, it all seems very silly and frivolous.  I still liked Jo the best of all the sisters, but wish she could have truly broken free of the confinements she found herself in by the time period and by the author who rendered her.  When death visits the family, I didn’t shed a tear, probably because I knew it was coming from having previously read the story, and because, well, it just didn’t move me now like it did way back when.

I read about the first 1/3 word for word, then found myself skimming here and there, and finally, at a little more than halfway through, I cast it aside and took up the remainder in an abridged children’s version my daughters have.  I don’t feel bad about it since I did read the book in its entirety more than once, even if it was many, many moons ago.

So, I guess my final thoughts are that some books just don’t hold the same magic when revisited a long time later.  Little Women was originally written with a juvenile audience in mind, and I think that might be the best audience to read it.

Review: Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

I was inspired to read this by the fact that my fourteen-year old son is reading it for his ninth grade English class.  I read The Grapes of Wrath years ago, and more recently, East of Eden, and enjoyed those enough to consider myself something of a fan of John Steinbeck’s writing.

The particular edition I have of Of Mice and Men begins with a twenty-five page very scholarly introduction, examining and explaining the themes found throughout the story, as well as Steinbeck’s motivation and state of mind surrounding his writing of the book.  These kinds of introductions tend to intimidate me; it usually tells me that the story contains some deep, obscure philosophical meanings that are probably going to fly right over my head.  I’m not going to try to analyze the themes in the book too much, because I just don’t feel qualified.  Instead, I’ll give you a synopsis of the story and tell you how I felt about it.

This slim novel, at just barely over 100 pages, is a tightly wound, intense story, populated by characters who have an almost mythical feel to them.  At the heart of the story are George and Lennie, both transient farm workers in California during the 1930s.  Lennie is a giant of a man with the mind of a child; George is a scrappy, hardened man.  The two men travel, looking for work together, which makes them an unusual sight; at the time, sticking together while living the life of a migrant farm worker was extremely rare.  So what keeps these two together?  On the surface, George, while physically much smaller than Lennie, tends to be rather cold and callous to the feeble-minded Lennie.  Lennie follows George like an obedient puppy.  A deeper look reveals a caring and loyalty between the men; although a tireless laborer, Lennie is incapable of thinking or caring for himself, and George has taken on the role of Lennie’s caretaker and protector.  They share a dream of socking enough money away to buy their own piece of land and “livin’ offa the fatta the lan’.”  This shared dream is really what keeps them from falling into an abyss of hopelessness, for it is a hard life they lead.

Full of foreshadowing, events unfold that are both not surprising, but still shocking.  “It is a parable about committment, loneliness, hope, and loss,” and, in my view, mercy.  It is, ultimately, a tragedy.  I think this story is going to stay with me for quite a while.

I am very interested to talk about this book with my fourteen-year old when he finishes it.