Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Farmer Boy" is a departure from the rest of the famed "Little House" books in that it does not relate the story of her own family's hardscrabble existence on the western frontier, but instead tells the story of her husband's boyhood on his family's prosperous farm in upstate New York. Thus, it introduces readers to an entirely new family, the Wilders, and the Ingalls family is not even mentioned. However, this is one of the best books of the "Little House" series.
"Farmer Boy" details a year or so in the life of 9 yr old Almanzo Wilder. A good deal of this book is spent showing that life on a farm in the 1860's, even for a well-to-do family living in a civilized part of the country, still meant never-ending, hard, physical labor. Young Almanzo and his siblings spend their lives working on one chore after another- the work changing as the seasons change. Undoubtedly, modern children will read this book and be thankful that they don't live in a time where sleeping in past 5 AM was considered odd and children were expected to be seen (at work) and not heard.
In addition to describing day to day life on a farm, Mrs. Wilder also details the family relationships between the Wilders. Almanzo's parents are shown as loving, but, in contrast to Pa and Ma Ingalls, they come across as a little more stern and authoritarian with their children. For example, James Wilder, Almanzo's father, is always called "Father" never "Pa."
Almanzo's relations with his three siblings are also described. (Almanzo actually had five siblings, but oldest sister, Laura, and younger brother, Perley, were left out of the book.) Almanzo looks up to his 13 yr old brother, Royal. Ten yr old sister Alice is shown as being very spunky and loveable and was obviously Almanzo's favorite sib. (Alice, who was a very pretty girl, died at a fairly young age and this book is her younger brother's tribute to her.) And finally there is Eliza Jane, age 12, who comes across as every younger brother's nightmare of a bossy older sister. It's obvious that Laura Ingalls Wilder did not care much for her sister-in-law Eliza Jane because she portrayed her pretty badly in her books. However, one of the great moments of "Farmer Boy" involves Eliza Jane showing in her own way how much she truly loved her younger brother. The wonderful descriptions of familial relationships in the "Little House" books are one of the big reasons why this series is so beloved.
"Farmer Boy" exudes all the hallmarks of a great "Little House" book- the wonderfully detailed depiction of life on a farm, the loving but still realistic portrayal of family life, and it also exudes a warm-hearted sentiment for an era long gone. Yet, "Farmer Boy" shows some of the darker elements of mid-19th century life. An attempted burglary is a subject of one chapter and the book opens with a pretty scary depiction of an 1860's schoolhouse. The "Little House" books often present a fairly rosy picture of the one-room schoolhouse, yet "Farmer Boy" shows a darker side. In this book, the teenage sons of farmers are shown coming to school just to bust it up and pummel any teacher who gets in their way.
Finally, as an Irish-American, I've always been amused by the unconcious bigotry towards Irish immigrants found in the "Little House" books. The few Irish characters in these books are either shown as fall-down drunks or as fools- read the story about cutting-ice in "Farmer Boy" to see an example. I don't think Laura Ingalls was anti-Irish, but just writing down 19th century attitudes about certain ethnic groups. She did the same thing for American Indians, but even more blatantly.