Little House: Let's Read Farmer Boy OMGWTFBBQ

[Content Note: Physical Abuse]

Farmer Boy: Chapter 1

So here's the thing: I've read these books.

I did. I read them when I was a little kid, all the way through, straight through to the middle of "The First Four Years" at which point the drastic change in tone and the new names to remember alienated me enough that I put them down and moved on to Nancy Drew or whatever. But I did read them.

Given that I loved books and we didn't own very many (though we frequented the library often) and these had been given as a present, it was odd that I never read them through much after that. Every so often I'd pick up Big Woods and tear through that, but then when I'd start Farmer Boy, I'd hit a stall and couldn't go on. If you'd asked me why that was, I would have ventured that maybe Farmer Boy was kind of boring? There was something about it that also made me sad, but I couldn't put my finger on what.

With that in mind, here are the first two chapters of Farmer Boy:

Big boys who beat little boys.
Big boys who force little boys to beat other little boys.
Teachers who beat little boys.
Fathers who beat little boys. 
Fathers who beat little boys after they are beaten by their teachers.
Big boys who beat teachers.
Big boys who beat teachers so badly that they die from it.


I wish I was exaggerating or making that up. I'm not. 

Somewhere on the internets, there is an emoticon that I cannot find. But it was a standard yellow emoticon ball, traversing a circular path. On either side of the emoticon face, two smaller balls -- its arms -- were windmilling wildly around. The impression was of an emoticon running in a tight, panicky circle while flapping its arms in panic.

That is what my brain is doing now. Not in a triggered way, mind you, just in a ... WTFOMGBBQ way.

It was fun while it lasted, but I think I'm going to have the put the Little House books down now and go watch more "Blade" or something, because I can already see that any further Let's Reads on this topic are going to end with me being all CAPSRAGEY and cordially inviting everyone in rural nineteenth century New York to GO DIE IN A FIRE or something similarly over-stated and inappropriate and no one wants that.

The weirdest thing to me is that I frankly didn't remember these books having such a heavy focus on physical punishment. I just ... yeah. Brain wipe, I guess?


depizan said...

The whole school teacher situation (and lets not forget that the solution is for the new teacher to get a special whip and beat the murderous boys with it WTF on toast) is one of the things I remember about Farmer Boy, though I didn't remember that the book opened with it. It seemed rather WTF to me as a kid, though it actually strikes me as more WTF now, mostly because I know more history and start to side-eye the whole thing as slightly improbable. Which adds a whole new layer of WTFBBQ onto it. (Not to say that it's impossible, but even the lawless west wasn't nearly as lawless as generally portrayed. But we've got youths murdering school teachers without repercussion in a rural - but hardly lawless west - school? Whut?)

Ana Mardoll said...

I think what makes me the saddest -- besides Royal's father beating him for being slow at spelling because WTF GUY WTF -- is that in order to save himself, the teacher has to compromise his principles and beat the bad students. He has to become what the text has set up to be That Which He Hates. And it's treated as ... kind of a good thing instead of a TRAGIC COMMENTARY ON HOW FUCKED UP THIS CULTURE IS.

(I mean, we haven't gotten there yet, but I remember. There was even a picture for that scene. A PICTURE.)


I'ma go listen to Seanan McGuire Susan filk now.

Ana Mardoll said...

Edit: also, why?

It even notes that they only attend in the winter, when they don't have any other chores.

I sort of wondered if "boys from Hardscrabble Hill" was supposed to be a dogwhistle for something (Irish? Poverty? Immigrants?) but Google isn't being helpful.

It seems awfully unlikely that the parents in the community would allow 5 boys out of what appears to be dozens of children to run off (and in one case KILL) *multiple* teachers. I mean, this is not a community that is shy about beating kids, so I find it hard to believe that they would be shy about enforcing the law on some 16- and 17-year olds.


depizan said...

You know that post you made a few days back about Problematic in Hindsight stuff? I think this series would win the award for me. The more I think about it, the larger the WTF pile grows. I wonder what small-child-me saw in them, because adult-me is mostly staring at them (metaphorically) with horrified anime face. O_o o_O O_O WHUT?????

They're like a pile of Not My Values.

Ana Mardoll said...

Well, they do have food porn like whoa. And they have that historical, roughing it, Revolutionary War Uber-Pioneer feel. I'm not sure where else you get that, to be honest.

But, yeah, I'm like "can I hear more about how you're providing for yourself and less about ALL THE BEATINGS EVER". (Although, ironically, I imagine that *would* be what the children would remember most. "Did you have chickens, Momma?" "I don't remember, but your grandpa sure could wield a strap....")


depizan said...

I'm sure it's a dogwhistle for something. I'm personally going with poor ethnic immigrants of some variety. (In other words, all of the above.)

But not only do you have the rest of the community, but...I would sort of expect there to be some sort of law enforcement. There's a frickin' town there. There's a bunch of towns in the area. I'm finding this story highly improbable.

depizan said...

I'm going to blame the food porn. And maybe the Pioneer stuff. Mostly because those are areas that would cross over with fantasy - a genre I've always liked.

Nina said...

The food porn is what I remember best about Farmer Boy. And the scene where they have to pour water over every blade of corn before the sun comes up and kills it. And the bit where their parents go and they terrorize the pig and manage not to quite eat all the sugar in the sugar barrel.

I do remember the older boys at school beating the teacher and all that now that you mention it. I think I was disturbed enough about that as a kid to sort of shuffle it off to the back of my mind.

As far as the books in general are concerned, what I loved best about them was all the interesting pioneer stuff - the explanation of how Pa made his own bullets, how they built the log cabin (and Laura helping to hang the door), the discussions of food prep, etc. Also, I think the books are really well written - the prose is memorable, beautiful, evocative. I strongly sympathized with Laura as a child partly because she wrote (along with her daughter's editing) her internal emotional life so well.

Ana Mardoll said...

Yep! I went into this thinking "bring on the sugar barrel!" I'd forgotten about the opening.

Of course, the sugar barrel is overlaid with the children being paralyzed with fear that their parents will find out they misbehaved while they were gone and.... will.... beat them.


Smilodon said...

It's been a long time since I read this books, so this might be totally off, but I remember reading "The First Four Years" and feeling like the change in tone was because the sadness and the misery was real. And the rest - the romantic, happy sheen - was added in the editing process. The world really was a hard place, people could die or become disabled at any point, violence was somewhat socially acceptable. And I felt that's deeply underlying all the books, but normally they tried to soften it.

Anthony Rosa said...

You know... for me, a lot of the appeal was the same sort of thing as listening to my mother tell stories of her childhood. Funny and interesting events from a time that no longer exists, and cultural moors that were no longer normal, and which I didn't hold, even in the early 1990's when I was small.

It's like listening to someone else tell stories of THEIR childhood... and even if the culture is different, even if they do horrible things, well, it's entertaining and fascinating to see what they say about their own lives. If this was entirely fictitious, instead of a white-washing of someone's real life (THIS IS THE WHITE-WASHING, OMG), maybe I could feel differently. But I think this story still has worth from an adult, modern perspective.

And I see that worth specifically through Ana, here. Your reactions and opinions, your reading between the lines and links to other peoples' information, that is incredibly useful, and says a lot about this novel series and the life situation of a severely impoverished family in the 1870's and 80's. Also, 1870's?! Really?! That late and they're still... geez...

Lonespark said...

Some kids did beat a schoolteacher to death in New England around that time. I don't know if it happened more often than the once...

Lonespark said...

And by "around that time," I probably mean, "within a fifty-year period," probably.

depizan said...

And got away with it?

dawn said...

NO, no, don't stop now! Skip Farmer Boy if you have to and move on to LHOTP, but I just found you and am enjoying these way too much! (Although, skip FB and you lose out on the best food porn of the whole series. My husband and I read that one out loud to each other on a CRUISE. If there is a better way to gain 10 pounds in a week, I don't know what it is.)

I know it doesn't make it /better/ per se, but the whole "it was a different time" argument that you despise so much really does apply. Reading these books through a modern progressive filter might be horrifying, but our very ability to be /rational/ on subjects like corporal punishment, gender roles, etc. is very much a part of modern culture, a luxury of a society where it is acceptable to question long-held traditions and belief. It's very comforting and self-gratifying to believe that, had /I/ lived back then, I would have thought/acted differently than the collective, but ultimately I really have no idea what I would have done surrounded by the person-shaping influences of that time. That is, after all, why we celebrate the historical figures who made real differences - they were few, and courageous, and radically different in their thinking.

Interestingly, in the more recent books by McBride about Rose, it is mentioned that Laura and Almanzo do not spank or whip Rose - whether that is accurate I don't know, but if so at least we know that Laura was nonplussed by her parents' discipline enough to stop the cycle. I always got the impression, particularly in the scene in LHITBW where she was whipped, that she was recording it with some irony - it can't be coincidence that the only direct whipping of Laura we see is a result of her striking someone herself. (I do think you are over-reaching with your "behavior modeling" thing though. Some small children hit when they are angry whether they've ever been spanked or not, as I can attest from personal experience. A predisposition to violence is a normal human trait that has to be brought under control in a civilized society, not something that is forced upon blank innocent canvases.)

I'm just sayin' - I get that deconstruction is all about exposing the underlying irrationality, assumptions, etc. , but reading your posts leaves me with the impression that any image of the Ingalls as loving parents is incompatible with the fact that they used corporal punishment on their children, and I would disagree with this. There is far more to these books than kids being beaten, but I'm not sure anyone who came upon your blog without having read them would believe it. Despite the length, and argumentative (though not, I hope, combative) nature of this comment (sorry, I'm long-winded, particularly on a first post!) I really am enjoying these posts and I don't want you to stop!

VMink said...

Sigh. 'Farmer Boy.'

I enjoyed reading the LHOTP books when I was younger, but this was about the same time span in which I was trying to enjoy the Narnia books and struggling through my (first) run through LOTR. Mostly I enjoyed the LHOTP books because (a) I kind of liked the TV series and (b) found it interesting because of the depiction of life in that time, the details about how people lived then. Looking back, I think I got a bit more from "A Museum of American Tools" than LHOTP. Also, my mind is like a steel seive; the only scenes from LHOTP that remained with me was one scene in Little Town where Laura is describing what a 'facade' front to a building means, and Laura crying that she wants a 'papoose' (Lordy, I don't remember the spelling or even the word) when a column of Native Americans are trudging past their home on their way out further west or to some reservation or another.

And the teasing.

I got so much damn guff from my so-called peers for reading 'Farmer Boy.' They thought the title was funny, and called me that, and loved my reaction, and RAEG ALERT fists flew. Jerks. I wouldn't call it 'triggering' except that it triggers unkind thoughts about my classmates of the time, most of whom I can cheerfully do without ever hearing anything about ever again.

Hold on, let me wipe this spittle off my chin... there.

Anyway, I got to Farmer Boy kind of late in the series; I think I skipped most of it, it was just frustrating to be seen with it. Maybe I should have stuck with it, but it would have probably just reinforced my overall feelings of misanthropy towards people my own age-range.

Ana Mardoll said...

Thank you, but I have personal obligations that also prevent me from continuing. But I'm glad you liked it so far.

I wanted to ping off something you said, though. One of the reasons why I truly despite "that's just how it was back then" is because it's essentially a false statement. The existence of Almanzo's teacher PROVES that there were adults who thought beatings were counter-productive to learning. That's not a new idea that we modern people came up in our modern awesomeness.

When we excuse the past for bad behavior, we do a number of things. One, we invisible the people who lived and worked and fought and died to do things differently. We pretend they don't exist in favor of an easier, more cohesive narrative. "Nearly everyone was that way" is neat; "a fuck-ton of people weren't and others could have listened and chose not to" is complicated.

Two, we allow a majority of bad people, even a slim majority or merely a perceived majority, to define history. This is a bad thing, in my opinion. There are now, in this day and age, more people who use corporal punishment than not, I'd be willing to wager. That doesn't mean that I'm going to look at someone beating a child NOW and say "well, that's just how things are". It IS how things are; that's not an excuse for the behavior.

Three, and most insidiously of all, we pretend that we're better than the past. That's a comfortable place to be for people of privilege, but it allows us to hide from ourselves the fact that, no, things were a mix of good and bad THEN and they're a mix of good and bad NOW and we need to carry on the fight that Almanzo's teacher carried on and not rest on our laurels.

So, yeah, "that's just how it was" is not something that I, personally, accept.

Smilodon said...

Content Note: Discussion of violence.

I agree that "It was a different time" isn't sufficient - but I do think it was important to consider. I think there was a level of normalization of violence and pain that I have never experienced., and that I think exists less in modern-day North America than it did then. I don't worry that I'm going to get attacked by wild animals when I leave my house. If I got viciously stung by bees, there's a hospital only a few blocks from me that would not only treat my wounds but also give me medication to help with the pain. My plan for my old age is not "have a number of children, since likely not all of them will make it to adulthood, and expect to live with the most prosperous". I think that living with the fear of violence does change the way you deal with the world, and I don't think you can say "people should behave with modern values" without understanding that those people were not living modern lives. I'm not trying to justify their behaviour - I agree that beating a child is wrong - but I think context matters.

Ana Mardoll said...

I agree that context matters, but then I'm not sure where I gave the impression that I thought it didn't. I think it's complicated. (How can I not, since my parents used corporal punishment on me, and yet I still love them.) :)

dawn said...

"The existence of Almanzo's teacher PROVES that there were adults who thought beatings were counter-productive to learning. That's not a new idea that we modern people came up in our modern awesomeness. "

True. However, we now have an understanding of child psychology and actual documented research to /prove/ corporal punishment is counterproductive - and, as you point out, a vast segment of the population STILL doesn't believe it, preferring to take ancient scripture verses literally and out of context, or by appealing to anecdotal history ("my parents did it and I turned out fine!").

So imagine nearly 150 years ago, when that information wasn't around, and the weight of authority (both "the Bible says it" and "my parents did it this way") carried a lot more oomph than it does today. Yes, there were people who didn't follow the mold, but I think, overall, even for those who didn't agree, there was probably a lot of succumbing to public opinion and the assumption that "this is the way it's always been done, so if I feel like there's anything wrong with it, the problem must be me, not the method."

I agree that saying "that's just how it was" is insufficient. And it certainly does not make beating children a laudable thing in any century. But it does open up gray areas that, at least for me, influence the judgement calls I make on whether a bit of literature can be reasonably enjoyed or not.

I'm sincerely sorry for your health troubles. I hope things are resolved to your comfort soon.

cjmr said...

"I wanted to ping off something you said, though. One of the reasons why I truly despite "that's just how it was back then" is because it's essentially a false statement. The existence of Almanzo's teacher PROVES that there were adults who thought beatings were counter-productive to learning. That's not a new idea that we modern people came up in our modern awesomeness."

Actually, with the exception of children/young adults, Almanzo's PARENTS thought that beatings were counterproductive to learning. When the children are working with or training the animals they are told to never, never strike or frighten the animals or even raise their voice in a scary manner, but to always train them gently and kindly. Why the F they didn't extend that to their children, I don't understand.

Notoftenpunctual said...

That linked post is really interesting, because it is a rather different take on the central messages of the Little House books that I picked up reading and re-reading them from childhood to today. I'll definitely agree that there's a pretty heavy "Let's all be self-reliant!" angle. And there was definitely anti-govt hostility (and racism) in Little House on the Prairie, thanks to Pa's great idea of becoming a squatter and then finding out that the government wasn't going to let him do that.

But the big message I got about ideal living situations wasn't "You should go off the grid and be like Pa, only without the government and technology messing up all your great ideas."

In fact, the message I got was almost the opposite. What I picked up was, "GEEZUS CHRIST, DON'T BE A FARMER." In fact, if I remember correctly, Laura actually underlines that (and sticks some exclamation points after it) in Happy Golden Years and First Four Years. Almonzo has to talk her into letting him stake a claim and try farming. Her whole plan was to never marry a farmer. Not be cause of govt. or tech interference, but because you have no control over the weather and the natural events that happen to you, and because your kids are stuck in a very insecure situation without regular access to school.

Throughout the books, Pa keeps trying to move away from society. He leaves the Big Woods when he can see all the other people's chimney fires. (In real life, if I remember correctly, he actually tried--and failed--to talk Ma into moving to Oregon after their area of South Dakota became too densely populated for him.) But Ma and the girls (who are presented as being right about this) much prefer living in or close to towns, where they can go to school and interact with other people and have some kind of social backup through church and friends when everything goes to shit.

I read the books as a conflict between Pa's migrant, rural, agrarian, frontier-oriented perspective and Ma's stable, urban (or anyway, "in town"), progress and development-oriented perspective. And, from what I saw, I was supposed to take away the idea that Ma should have won that. Even if it was Pa who got his way most of the time.

I distinctly remember reading in grade school when Laura announced that she would never marry a farmer and thinking, "Ditto!"

Anonymus said...

So, you've inspired me to go read the series, because I liked Little House in the Big Woods as a child, hit Farmer's Boy, and I was so upset that it wasn't about Laura and Mary and I didn't want to read about a boy because boys are icky, and so I found Farmer's Boy boring and never got on with the rest of the series. I still don't particularly like boys, except for the little ones, because they hand me a brown lump of clay shaped like maybe owl maybe puppy dog maybe kitten saying "look i made you this for you in preschool!", instead of the "omg tits" reaction that older men have all too often, but I no longer mind spending a book with a male character.

I've now read the entire series. I liked Farmer's Boy this time because Almanzo is such a sweet boy who really wants to be good and all he wants is a colt to break of his own, to teach gentleness and never frighten it, and SPOILERS in the end, he gets one awwies <3<3<3.

Corporal punishment isn't mentioned at all in any of books 3-9. I was keeping a close eye on it for you Ana. There is, of course, poverty and hardship and the last book, The First Four Years, I found rather dull, but I imagine Laura found those years of her life to be alternatingly dull and painful, what with being married and having to keep house and being poor and in debt and the other things that happened, one of which might be triggery to Ana.

Moving back a few books, Laura is afraid when she goes to be a schoolteacher at age 15, because some of the students are older than her, but she manages and learns to get the respect of her students, no corporal punishment needed.

But I understand if you're not up for it, spoons and all. I have never so desperately wanted to do housework as I have this month. I'm not very domestic in the best of times, but I've spend this entire month just wishing my pain levels would drop long enough to do a little vacuuming, or a little laundry, or any of the other little household tasks that would make my environment so much sweeter and nicer. It's not even "I wish I had the spoons to listen to a little music", it's "I wish I had the spoons to do basic housecleaning tasks that I don't particularly enjoy." I hate to complain about it here when I know Ana is in worse pain, but here I am. Do tell me if you'd rather I didn't complain here, and I won't; it's okay.

*offers hugs for Ana*

Ana Mardoll said...

Of course dear, commiserating is practically what the board is for! :)

PXL said...

I have to agree with the "it was a different time" argument- it's very easy to sit in front of a computer in the 21st century, having ready access to food, medical care, technology, etc- nevermind the advances in thought regarding discipline, religion, social and political understanding- and say, "Well, I never!" without the benefit of having experienced any of these things. Not to mention that, well, society was completely different then- and mores have a way of changing over time. I understand the objections to a lot of the events and attitudes described in the books; but I think standing 150+ years off and looking down on people's choices maybe isn't all that useful. It's an interesting contrast, comparing then to now, but to view the people of the past, who haven't had the benefit of the intervening century-plus, just doesn't seem that useful.
That said, I do very much enjoy the series of posts and don't mean any of that as an attack; just an observation from a different corner.

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