Posted by: Hannah | 05/05/2013

James Wilder is my spirit animal

Harry likes me to read certain books aloud, even though he’s well-capable of reading them himself.

The Little House books are great cooperative reads. Lots of stuff to talk about as we go. They are favourites of mine, too, so I enjoy curling up before bed and thumbing through the well-worn pages. I’m happy to read them (unlike the Captain Underpants series, which are just painfully stupid. Ron wants me to read them to him, and I am, but I’m not enjoying the process much at all).

Anyway, Harry loves Farmer Boy and not-so-secretly wants to be Almanzo, even with the chores from can to can’t, even with the threats of whippings using actual whips. For a school writing project he had to come up with three wishes; he listed playing for the Blue Jays, getting the $500 Lego Death Star for Christmas, and having his own team of oxen just like Almanzo.

It’s cute.

A couple of nights ago we read the chapter where the Wilder family gets their year’s supply of ice, electricity being not a thing at the time. It’s a great chapter, because it has all the things that make Farmer Boy such a good read:

  • Description of old-timey ingenuity, involving using cross-cut saws to cut huge blocks of ice 
  • Casual denigration of French people (the hired hands are “French Joe” and “Lazy John”, and they get paid in salt pork instead of money. Also, they “drank red wine instead of cider”.
  • A joke about stupid Irishmen (no, I’m not kidding, there is actually a joke about stupid Irishmen).
  • A vivid description of the freaking enormous meal Almanzo eats after working like a dog all morning.
  • A discussion of Father’s parenting style that make Harry’s eyes widen with gleeful terror.

The menfolk all go to the river, to cut blocks of ice. This of course means they have to open a hole in the surface ice. Almanzo is just barely nine years old when this happens:

Almanzo ran to the edge of the hole … suddenly, right on the very edge, he slipped. He felt himself falling headlong into the dark water. His hands couldn’t catch hold of anything. He knew he would sink and be drawn under the solid ice. The swift current would pull him under the ice, where nobody could find him. He’d drown, held down by the ice in the dark.

French Joe grabs him by the leg, just in time. Almanzo is saved! Crisis averted! Thank goodness for shiftless Frenchmen!

Does Almanzo’s father hug him? Drop to his knees in overwhelming gratitude? Say ‘thank you’ to French Joe for saving his boy? Let’s see!

Father was coming, running. 

Father stood over him, big and terrible. “You ought to have the worst whipping of your life,” Father said. 


As a kid, I never understood this. He almost died, Father! For goodness’ sake, he damn near drowned like a rat in frigid water. It was a close call. Why does Father react by threatening to beat the tar out of him with the whip that is on the bobsled?

Then yesterday happened.

I was in my front yard with all three boys, gardening. Ron and George were digging weeds out of the vegetable patch. Harry and I were on the other side of the yard, wrestling with an ugly perennial that came with the house and is choking out my tulip bed. Every couple of minutes, I’d lift my head to check on the younger kids.









He was busily toddling through the gap in the fence, heading for the parking lot of the pizza shop next door. Next stop, hugely dangerous road where everybody speeds and even I don’t cross on foot unless I have to.

And then I found out that I can still run, when I have to. And I screamed for him to stop, and for once in his stubborn little life he did. He didn’t think it was the chase-me game. He didn’t turn tail and run. He didn’t even make it a couple of feet past the fence before I caught him, and hugged him so tightly he yelled in protest.

He was never in any danger, not really. I got to him in plenty of time. But I might not have. Any parent knows how fast those chubby toddler legs can move, sometimes. And of course I vividly imagined what would have happened if I hadn’t lifted my head to peek at just that moment. Or if he hadn’t stopped. Or or or or.

Suddenly, Almanzo’s father reacting the way he did makes a lot more sense.

I imagine that Father ran through all the scenarios in his mind while he sprinted across the ice that day, and that the relief at knowing his son was OK was at war with his anger – because a few moments of thoughtlessness caused him to come face-to-face with the knowledge that we could lose our children, any of us, at any time. That fear makes us angry. It made me angry, yesterday. I wanted someone to blame, someone besides myself.

Once we were all back in the house, hands washed and tools put away, the ugly cry took over. It wasn’t more than a couple of hours before I was once again reminding the older boys to clean their room and sternly telling George that no, cheesestrings do not go in the toilet.

But the memory of that fear, it’s lingering today. I may never read that chapter in the same way again.

And as for that stupid ugly perennial, it can wait until George goes for a nap.





  1. You feel that way, and then it passes, but in that moment you are indeed torn between smothering them with kisses and beating them for terrifying you.

    • I was ranting and crying at the same time. I’m sure the children thought I’d lost my goddamn mind.

  2. Ack. So so very glad that all is well. Hugs to you.

  3. I totally get it. It’s the being torn between screaming at the child and hugging them.


    Lazy John and French Joe. Heh.

    • Screaming *while* hugging them doesn’t send mixed messages at all, right? RIGHT??

      Farmer Boy is my very favourite because James Wilder is a Bad. Ass. Remember when it’s -40F and some of his cattle won’t fit in the barns, so he gets out of bed in the middle of the night to stand in the yard and make them run around until they warm up?

      BAD ASS, I’m telling you. So much more awesome than that shiftless Pa Ingalls. YES I SAID IT.

      • No no, I’m totally on your side here. Remember when the corn was going to freeze and he got everyone out of bed to water it before the sun came up? I kind of have a crush on him. You know who else was awesome, I remember thinking Mrs Wilder was kind of amazing. She’s multitasking between making pancakes and weaving cloth and doing a million other things.

        • YES watering the corn OMG. And they water something like 3.5 acres, but the sun comes up when they have half an acre left. And he says “well, at least we saved most of it”. *fans self*

          Mrs. Wilder was pretty badass too, I totally agree. I always thought her cooking sounded much more appetizing than Ma Ingalls. On the other hand, she always had lots of actual ingredients to cook with, whereas Ma only ever had hopes, dreams, and green pumpkins.

          Put it this way – I would much rather have lived on the Wilders’ farm in Malone. Better Christmas presents, too.

  4. My mother used to get FURIOUS if I scared her. My most potent memory is of this one time when my cousin suggested I got for a walk with her down the road to her friend’s farm, where she played all the time. I said we had to tell someone where we were going, so she shrugged and we went in and told her father, a beer-drinking dude in a wife beater who I barely remember because he and Laurenda got divorced shortly after. He said ok, barely looking away from the TV set.

    So we went to the farm and had a great time. We started walking back at dusk when my father’s car pulled up in a cloud of dust and my Dad jumped out. My cousin’s Dad was in the passenger seat. “See, I toldya they were probably down this way,” he said. “Let’s stop an pick up a pizza for dinner.”

    I rarely have seen my father angry, but there was a coldness in his voice when he said, “my wife doesn’t know that Carol is safe yet. WE ARE GETTING HER HOME RIGHT NOW.”

    When we got home my mother was ten minutes into an angry, screaming lecture before I tearfully managed to impress upon her that we DID tell someone where we were going. She immediately turned the rest of her rage on Phil or whatever my cousin’s dad’s name was.

    But I understood why my mother was angry. I was only nine or ten, but I remember feeling terribly guilty that I had frightened my mother. Maybe it was a function of being an only child, or simply my mother’s child, but I had always been VERY aware of the fact that I couldn’t let myself get hurt or killed because I was ALL MY PARENTS HAD. I felt responsible not only for my own safety, but their emotions.

    So that scene never confused me. I knew why the father was angry. My mother would have been much the same. In fact, the only time she ever DID slap me was when I was about George’s age and kept toddling toward the road.

    Putting myself at risk was the worst crime I could commit in my childhood. Nothing else came close.

    And we’re raising Owl the same way. The only time he ever sees his father angry is if he lets go of one of our hand’s in a parking lot or on the road…

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