Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Though I have been a fan of the TV show for years I resisted reading Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books.  I figured the time to have read them was when I was young.  But then last year in response to the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge I decided to give Little House in the Big Woods (the first book in the series) a try and I loved it.  I vowed that I would go on to read book two Farmer Boy published 1933 and now that I have I once again marvel at the quality of the writing.  Its the kind of writing that on the surface looks simple and effortless but in reality must have taken a tremendous amount of talent and hard work to accomplish.

That said I preferred Little House in the Big Woods to Farmer Boy.  I knew going in that Farmer Boy was a detour.  Unlike the other books in the series which center around Charles and Caroline Ingalls and their daughters Laura, Mary and Grace, Farmer Boy focuses on the author's husband, Almanzo Wilder growing up on a farm around 1870 in upstate New York.  I didn't think taking a break from the Ingalls family would matter that much to me but it did.  Laura Ingalls Wilder after all knew her own childhoood much better than she knew what Almanzo's early years were like.  I'm sure Almanzo shared his memories with his wife Laura but its not the same as writing down one's own story.

Farmer Boy takes us through a year in the life of the Wilder household.  We are introduced to Almanzo Wilder, age ten, his parents, his older brother Royal and his sisters, Eliza Jane and Alice. We learn a great deal in this book about running a farm and about the specific tasks the Wilders must complete each year based on the seasons, spring for planting and fall for harvesting but throughout the year there is constant work to be done, planting, hoeing, chopping wood, sewing, mending, breaking in horses, milking cows, house cleaning etc etc and then there is the food:

"Almanzo washed as quickly as he could and combed his hair.  As soon as Mother finished straining the milk, they all sat down and Father asked the blessing for breakfast. There was oatmeal with plenty of thick cream and maple sugar.  There were fried potatoes, and the golden buckwheat cakes. as many as Almanzo wanted to eat, with sausages and gravy or with butter and maple syrup.  There were preserves and jams and jellies and doughnuts.  But best of all Almanzo liked the spicy apple pie, with its thick, rich juice and its crumbly crust.  He ate two big wedges of the pie.

Almanzo and his family are well off, not only in comparison to the Ingalls but farmers in general. They own quite a bit of land with separate barns to keep their horses, cows, chickens, pigs.  In one scene Almanzo's father sells his crop of potatoes for $500.00 which in 1870 would have been a fortune.  This is a family that works hard from sun up to sun down and at one point Almanzo's parents decide to take off for a week's vacation miles away leaving their kids at home to run the farm.  That kind of shocked me and the first decision these kids make once their parents wave goodbye is to make candy.  Once the maple candy is made Almanzo sees no harm in feeding his little pig Lucy some of it but the next morning when he wakes up he discovers what a mistake he has made:

"Where her white teeth should have been, there was a smooth brown streak. Lucy's teeth were stuck together with candy!  She could not eat, she could not drink, she could not even squeal.  She could not grunt.  But when she saw Almanzo coming she ran ... she tore through the peas, and squashed the ripe tomatoes and uprooted the green round cabbages ... At last they cornered her.  Almanzo held her down.  Alice held her kicking hind legs.  Royal pried her mouth open and scraped out the candy.  Then how Lucy squealed! She squealed all the squeals that had been in her all night and all the squeals she couldn't squeal while they were chasing her, and she ran screaming to her pen".  

It's not an easy life working on a farm and for Almanzo's older brother Royal we learn that he wants no part of it and he tells Almanzo that when he grows up he wants to move to the city and open a store.  But for young Almanzo farming is in his blood.  That would remain true of the real life Almanzo Wilder and Farmer Boy is Laura Ingalls Wilder's loving tribute to her husband and the continuation of a truly wonderful children's series as well.

Farmer Boy fulfills the 2019 Back to the Classics category - choose a classic from the 20th century.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

The Good Earth by Pearl Buck

I first read The Good Earth by Pearl Buck when I was in my early teens and
the novel made quite an impression on me.   And so when the 2019 Back to the Classics category came along  - choose a classic set in Africa, Asia or Oceania, I knew it was time for a reread.

The Good Earth begins around 1880 in the rural farming village of Anhwei, China.  At  the start of the novel we are introduced to Wang Lung.  He is a poor farmer and it is his wedding day.  A bride has been chosen for him by the old mistress who rules the House of Hwang, the wealthiest family in the district.  Wang Lung's bride, O-lan, works as a kitchen servant for the Hwang family.  She was sold to them by her parents when she was ten years old.

Wang Lung is hoping for a pretty wife but O-lan turns out to be rather plain. She is a hard worker, an excellent cook, never complains and Wang Lung is very pleased.  Olan doesn't talk much though and certainly not about herself.  But early in the novel she does open up to Wang Lung when he suggests that they go back to the House of Hwang to find a midwife since their first child is about to be born:

"None in that house!" she cried out at him ... When I return to that house it will be with my son in my arms.  I shall have a red coat on him and red-flowered trousers and on his head a hat with a small gilded Buddha sewn on the front and on his feet tiger-faced shoes.  And I will wear new shoes and a new coat of black satin and I will go into the kitchen where I spent my days and I will go into the great hall where the Old One sits with her opium and I will show myself and my son to all of them".  

The Good Earth will take us through the next fifty years in the lives of Wang Lung, his family, their children, relatives and neighbors.  They endure much hardship.  There are births, deaths, marriages, drought, war but always there is the land which Wang Lung and O-lan have a reverence for:

"Moving together in perfect rhythm, without a word, hour after hour, he fell into a union with her which took the pain from his labor.  He had no articulate thought of anything; there was only the perfect sympathy of movement , of turning this earth of theirs over and over to the sun, this earth which formed their home and fed their bodies and made their gods".  

The Good Earth is the first book in a trilogy, The Sons and A House Divided are books two and three in this series but its the book that Pearl Buck is most known for, a huge bestseller when it was published in 1931 and winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1932.  It held up very well upon my rereading it and I would also recommend the movie The Good Earth starring Paul Muni and Luise Rainer and Ms. Rainer is particularly touching as O-lan.