‘Farmer Boy’: A Literary Overview (Part Two)

In Almanzo, a farmer boy, Wilder had to create a main character that she had to fully and completely imagine. She couldn’t simply draw on her own experiences, or flesh out scenes from ‘Pioneer Girl.’ Granted, she knew the main character very well. In 1933, she had been married to Almanzo Wilder for 47 years when she started to work on the manuscript. But creating a character from the outside in, rather than the inside out, as she did with Laura in ‘Little House in the Big Woods,’ is a very different creative process, and from the beginning it’s clear that Almanzo is the main character in ‘Farmer Boy.’ Despite the large family that we see in the opening scene of the novel– his big brother Royal and his two sisters Eliza Jane and Alice– readers instantly know that Almanzo will be the focus of the book. “He was the youngest of all, and this was his first going to school, because he was not quite nine years old. He had to walk fast to keep up with the others, and he had to carry the dinner pail.” Despite the large family, this isn’t an ensemble cast of characters as Wilder created in ‘Little House in the Big Woods.’ ‘Farmer Boy’ focuses, from the beginning, on one character in the family, and relates the story from his unique point of view. The narrative arc of ‘Farmer Boy’ traces Almanzo from the opening lines right through to the ending of the book. And I think perhaps this is the key difference between ‘Farmer Boy’ and ‘Little House in the Big Woods’: not so much the gender of the main character or the setting of the story, the key difference in ‘Farmer Boy’ marks the growth and change of Almanzo, from the beginning lines of the novel to its closing ones. Unlike Laura and Mary who are perpetual children in ‘Little House in the Big Woods,’ relatively unchanged by the events of the novel, Almanzo is transformed by the end of ‘Farmer Boy.’ He has matured, is able at last to take on the responsibility he has long dreamed of: gentling a colt. ‘Farmer Boy’ has clear forward motion. Its central storyline fulfills the desire of its main character. Listen to the closing lines of the novel: “‘If it’s a colt you want, I’ll give you Starlight.’ ‘Father,’ Almanzo gasped. ‘For my very own?’ ‘Yes son. You can break him and drive him, and when he’s a four year old you can sell him or keep him. Just as you want to do. We’ll take him out on a rope first thing tomorrow morning, and you can began to gentle him.'” As we’ve already seen, ‘Little House in the Big Woods’ is a cyclical story, lyrical and timeless with those closing lines about the ‘eternal now’ past that can never be a long time ago. This point is important because it signals something about Wilder’s creative vision and growth. In ‘Farmer Boy,’ she began to see beyond a cyclical ensemble cast for her own story, for the fictional Ingalls family, that there could be a way to write a story about growth, maturity, and change– as she did here with Almanzo– and project that onto the mythical archetypal Ingalls family, by creating a strong main character with a clear story arc. You can guess where I’m going with this: the creation of Laura as an unforgettable main character, set against her family’s larger-than-life desire to move West. So, hold onto that thought, I’ll come back to it in a moment. But, first a few observations about ‘Farmer Boy.’ Like ‘Little House in the Big Woods,’ ‘Farmer Boy’ focuses on such themes as self-reliance, responsibility, and family loyalty. But unlike her first book, Wilder gives us a sense of who her main character will grow up to be. Reading ‘Farmer Boy,’ even without knowing now what’s ahead in subsequent ‘Little House’ books, readers can guess that Almanzo will grow up to be a farmer, that this is his fate. “A farmer depends on himself and the land and the weather. If you’re a farmer, you raise what you eat, you raise what you wear, and you keep warm with wood out of your own timber. You work hard, but you work as you please and no man can tell you to go or come. You’ll be free and independent son, on a farm.” As this speech comes to an end, Almanzo squirms, but admits to himself this is the life that appeals to him. “He wanted to be just like father but he didn’t say so.” NOw, a couple of quick historical points. In ‘Farmer Boy,’ Wilder fictionalized her husband’s family. Almanzo has three siblings in the book; in real life he had five. And ultimately, his real family didn’t remain in Malone, New York. In the 1870s, the Wilders became pioneers themselves, moving to southeastern Minnesota. We’ll pick up the rest of the story later in part two, when the fictional Laura Ingalls meets the Wilder boy for the first time. But it’s also interesting to point out that an episode from ‘Farmer Boy’ sounds suspiciously similar to one in ‘Pioneer Girl.’ The episode with Big Bill Ritchie in the chapter entitled ‘Surprise.’ Wilder tells us that Bill’s father is proud of Bill because Bill could “thrash schoolteachers and break up the school.” Bill is big, strapping, and violent. He and his gang vow to beat up the new schoolteacher and throw him out. As for the schoolteacher, Mr. Coarse in ‘Farmer Boy’ is a small quiet man who can’t possibly thrash Bill and his hardscrabble gang. The scene is set for a hopeless confrontation, which ends, of course, in a surprise. “Mr. Coarse stepped away from the desk. His hand came from behind the desk lid, and a long thin black streak hissed through the air. It was a black snake ox whip, fifteen feet long. The thin long lash coiled around Bill’s legs, and Mr. Coarse jerked. Bill lurched and almost fell. Quick as black lightning, the lash circled and struck and coiled again, and again Mr.Coarse jerked.” Eventually, Big Bill Ritchie begins to bawl like a calf. “He blubbered and begged. The lash kept on hissing, circling, jerking. Bit by bit it jerked Bill to the door. Mr.Coarse threw him headlong into the entry and slammed and locked the door.” A similar scene takes place in ‘Pioneer Girl,’ but here, the action centers on a schoolteacher in Burr Oak, Iowa, named Mr.Reid, who was a slim young man just 21-years-old. While some of the boys in his class were big men, 24 and 25 years old, they went to school only in the wintertime, and always before the winter was over they started a fight with the schoolteacher and drove him away. The leader of this gang is Mose. A situation unfolds very similar to the one in ‘Farmer Boy,’ but this schoolteacher’s weapon of choice in this version of the story is a flat and very sturdy ruler. Mr. Reid moves quickly, surprises Mose, and drives him away. Mose never came back to school again, the other big boys left too, and school went on peacefully. So perhaps even in ‘Farmer Boy,’ Wilder drew on memories from her own childhood. There is one hint in ‘Farmer Boy,’ an intriguing reference to the frontier, and the restless spirit that defined it. The passage comes toward the end of the novel in a scene not surprisingly entitled ‘Independence Day.’ “‘This country goes 3000 miles west now. It goes way out beyond Kansas and beyond the Great American Desert, over mountains bigger than these mountains and down to the Pacific Ocean. It’s the biggest country in the world, and it was farmers who took all that country and made it America.'” Perhaps the reference to the West, which occurs in ‘Farmer Boy’ but nowhere in ‘Little House in the Big Woods’ reflects another important creative decision that grew out Wilder’s work on this novel. She finished the revisions for ‘Farmer Boy’ in February 1933, as we’ve seen, Harper’s bought it in March, and Wilder accepted the contract, despite that 50% cut in royalties. The book was published later that same year, in 1933. But Wilder was already working on another manuscript by then, a manuscript that even her daughter was excited about, one that would establish the themes that now characterize Wilder’s literary legacy: growth, change, and a restless pioneering spirit played out in the American West. As Lane wrote their literary agent in March 1933, “My mother is now doing another book about her childhood experiences among the Indians. It promises to beat ‘Little House’ all hollow.”

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