Tag Archives: Little House books

My Summer of The Donald: Ox-Cart Man and More

Like everyone else, I’ve spent an appalling amount of time this year reading much too much about Donald Trump. But there’s another Donald I became obsessed with this summer: Donald Hall.

It all started with a magazine story I was writing about Jan and David Hoffman, a pair of furniture makers in rural Pennsylvania who live a life of staggering self-sufficiency. They make their own tools, save their seeds and grow much of their own food. Jan told me they believed in the saying “no string too short to save.” Intrigued by her phrase, I Googled it and found this book:

string too short to be savedString Too Short to be Saved is poet Donald Hall’s 1961 memoir of the summers he spent as a youth on his grandparents’ New Hampshire farm in the years leading up to World War II. From the description, it promised to be a sweet, nostalgic beach read that was right up my alley — a string of lyrical anecdotes about tending cows and watching the seasons change. (Basically, a grown-up version of Farmer Boy.) And that alone would have left me plenty satisfied. But the book turned out to be so much more. Hall’s stories about haying, blueberry picking, lost cows and his grandfather’s eccentric farm hand are funny and thrilling enough for kids. I read S & L the chapter called “The Left-Footed Thief,” about the time Donald’s grandfather and his brother hunted down a sheep thief who was wearing two left-footed boots, and they were fascinated.

At the same time, the memoir is also suffused with sadness. From the mysteriously abandoned farm shacks Donald passes on his daily walks with his grandfather to the haunting portraits of long-dead relatives in his grandmother’s hallway there is a pervasive sense of loss in String Too Short. The emotional resonance reminded me of a Donald Hall essay from a couple years ago in The New Yorker in which the former poet laureate showed that at 83, his intellect was still as well-honed and deadly as an axe. Old age, he explained in his growly, godly prose, turned people “invisible.” At one point he described how, at a family dinner, one of his grandchild’s friends placed her chair to sit with her back directly facing Hall, as if his presence was no more than another piece of furniture. I remember his recounting of that moment like a stab in the chest.

String too Short is not by any means intended for kids, but if your 7th or 8th grader doesn’t mind a leisurely read and loved the Little House books and Roald Dahl’s Boy, try it on them.

I was so taken with Hall’s tales of frugal farm life I also got this out of the library:

Ox-Cart Man - Donald Hall

Ox-Cart Man is Hall’s 1979 Caldecott-winning children’s book about a 19th century farmer bringing the goods from his family’s farm to market. It’s one of those slow, bucolic, nothing-really-happens picture books that can be either deadly dull, or, when done right, utterly mesmerizing.

The rhythm of the prose echoes the reassuring rhythm of the farmer’s routines. The farmer packs his ox-cart with brooms, apples and maple syrup; he sells everything (including the ox and the cart) at Portsmouth Market; he buys a needle, a knife, and some peppermint candy for his family; he journeys back home; he and his family start the cycle again. Revisiting the book in light of Hall’s memoir, it’s even more satisfying.

Ox-Cart Interior

Ox-Cart Man, illustrated by Barbara Cooney

Bonus: With any luck your children will subconsciously absorb the message that in the good old days, kids did their share of labor and were happy if they got a single piece of wintergreen peppermint candy as a treat.

Hall has told interviewers that the surprise success of this book allowed him to put in a new bathroom in the New Hampshire farmhouse he’s lived in since 1975 (it’s the same house where his grandparents lived). A bronze plaque over the bathroom’s doorway reads “Caldecott Room.”

What Would Half-Pint Do?

With its crushing mortgage payments, hailstorms and diptheria outbreak, The First Four Years has got to be the grimmest book of the Little House series. (What nine-year-old wants to meet spunky little Laura as a stressed-out mom?) But thanks to this contribution from my longtime colleague and fellow-children’s books obsessive, Rory Evans, I have  come to see Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book in a whole new light. Thanks, Rory!


In February Laura’s 19th birthday came. Manly’s 29th was just a week later so they made one celebration for both…It wasn’t much of a celebration, just a large birthday cake for the two of them, and a little extra pains were taken in the cooking and arranging of the simple meal of bread, meat, and vegetables.

Laura had been at home so long, she wanted to go for a sleigh ride to see Ma and Pa. Could they take the baby out safely? They were sure they could. Some blankets were put to warming the stove. Manly drove the cutter close to the door and made a little warm nest of them in the shelter of the dashboard. Rose was wrapped in her own little warm blankets…and tucked tightly in among the blankets in the cutter. Then away they went.… Several times Laura put her hand in among the blankets and touched Rose’s face to be sure that she was warm and that there was air beneath the veil.

Mr. and Mrs. Boast lived by themselves on their farm. They had no children of their own… When at last the visit was over and Mr. Boast was standing by the buggy…he finally said in a queer voice, “If you let me take the baby in to Ellie for her to keep, you may take the best horse out of my stable and lead it home…You folks can have another baby, and we can’t. We never can. Manly gathered up the reins, and Laura said with a little gasp, “oh, no! No! Drive on, Manly!” As they drove away, she hugged Rose tightly; but she was sorry for Mr.

A friendly, stray Saint Bernard, a huge, black dog, had come to the house and been adopted…[He] seemed to think his special job was to watch over Rose, and wherever she was, there he would be curled around her or sitting close to her… Laura and Manly both liked to stay out in the sunny hayfield, and leaving Rose asleep with the big dog watching
over her…

It was quiet and there was nothing to do after supper when Rose was put to bed…she slept soundly for hours. So Laura and Manly came to saddling the ponies and riding them on the road before the house, on the run for half a mile south and back, then around the…house, a pause to see that Rose was still sleeping, and a half mile run north and
back for another look at Rose.

As the days passed bringing no [ruinous] hailstorm, Laura found herself thinking, Everything will even up in the end; the rich have their ice in the summer but the poor get theirs in the winter. When she caught herself at it, she would laugh with a nervous catch in her throat. She must not allow herself to be under such strain. But if only they could …sell this crop…Just to be free of debt and have …money to use for themselves would make everything so much easier….

It was a busy summer for Laura, what with the housework, caring for Rose, and helping Manly whenever he needed her. But she didn’t mind doing it all, for Manly was recovering the use of his hands and feet.

How could she ever keep up the daily work…there was so much to be done and only herself to do it. She hated the farm and the stock and the smelly lambs, the cooking of food and the dirty dishes. Oh, she hated it all, and especially the debts that must be paid whether she could work or not. [But Laura would] be darned she’d go down and stay down and howl about it.

–Rory Evans

The First Four Years


Little House Books: The Lost Covers

Browsing in the library the other day my daughter and I came across this:

BanksofPlumCreek-photoThey also had this:

LittleTown-photo Sacrilege! In the first one, Laura looks like she’s on the front of a Land’s End catalog; on the second one Mary is wearing a full face of makeup. The covers were published in 2007, timed with the series’ 75th anniversary. Evidently, they were not a big hit; the  HarperCollins Little House website has no trace of these covers whatsoever.

The List: Ann Patchett

Ann_PatchettAnn Patchett and I met years ago when she had just published her second novel, Taft, and was writing freelance stories for Vogue, where I was  an assistant on what felt like full-time cappucino duty. I remember her as one of the kindest people I had ever met, and though we later fell out of touch, I always held on to the fact that I knew her once. When I read Ann’s captivating Atlantic story about how she came to open Parnassus Books, her independent bookstore in her hometown of Nashville it gave me the courage (and the excuse) to get back in touch.

So, what books did Ann love as a kid? “I didn’t learn to read until the third grade!” she told me. “I found reading terrifying.”  She wrote in mirror letters and when she looked at a piece of paper, she says, “I was never sure if I should start on the right or the left.” She recalls being in perfect awe of the books her big sister used to read. “She had Babar and The Little Prince. The type of those books was printed in cursive, which I couldn’t read. And she was reading them in French, which I couldn’t understand. So just looking at them I felt like my head was going to explode.”

Like a child who still crawls at 18 months, but then skips walking and goes straight to running, Ann leapfrogged the children’s books stage almost entirely.  By the time she became a real reader, she jokes, “I was ready for Saul Bellow.” Still, she had a few faves to share.

Ann Patchett’s Favorite Children’s Books

1)   The Lonely Doll by Dare Wright

The-Lonely-Doll“This was by far my favorite picture book. I loved that it looked like no other book I had ever seen and it was a story I could really relate to. I think of it as the great ‘child of divorce’ book — my parents split up when I was four — because it’s about a little girl who gets left behind. In the story, the little doll and the little bear do some mean, naughty things. They are punished, but then they are forgiven and everything is made whole again. I went to Catholic school for years, so this, of course, made perfect sense.”

2) Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

charlottes-web-cover“When I did finally start reading, I was a real Charlotte’s Web girl. I would read it over and over and over again. I got a toy pig for my 9th birthday and I stopped eating animals with hooves. I’m still a vegetarian to this day. Strangely enough, I did not read E.B. White’s other books. To be honest I didn’t even know that E.B. White had written other books.”

3) The Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder

little-house-on-the-prairie“Except for Farmer Boy, which I skipped because I was uninterested in absolutely anything having to do with boys back then, I loved all these books. And much later when my grandmother was dying — she passed away almost 8 years ago — I read the whole series again to her.  Because she had dementia it was so hard to find the right books, but these were perfect. Reading them aloud was a very moving experience.”

Ann Patchett’s next novel will be out from HarperCollins in November. Parnassus Books continues to flourish. And — in case you missed it — last year Ann published a lovely mini memoir/writer’s guide (a Kindle Single, in fact!) called The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life.

If We Lived in Colonial Times

There’s nothing like reading about the hardships of life for children centuries ago to squelch (albeit momentarily) the whining of today’s lazy, spoiled middle-class American kids. What mom hasn’t relished the moment her children realized that little Laura and Mary Ingalls spent hours uncomplainingly mending, dusting, fetching water, tending livestock and minding Carrie? Not to mention the fact that they practically danced a jig when Ma made them cakes dusted with white sugar.

A book that made a huge impression on me when I was a child was If You Lived in Colonial Times. (Written by genius sadist Ann McGovern in 1964.) Reading it, you got the same grotesque pleasure you got from reading the Guinness Book of World Records; knowing it was all true made it totally horrifying and compelling in the best possible way.

You learned things like: The schoolmaster would whip you with a birch branch if you didn’t know your lessons. If you forgot to bring firewood to school in winter you had to sit in the coldest part of the room. At dinner, children could not say one word, and everybody ate standing up. You could not laugh on Sunday. If you got sick and there was no doctor around, the town barber would do the bloodletting. And instead of everybody lying on an overstuffed sofa in front of the big-screen TV, this is what you’d be doing with your family on a Tuesday night:

I was psyched to buy my kids a copy of the book when I saw it on display at the Smithsonian gift shop in D.C. a couple years ago. The cover doesn’t quite have the charm of the original, but what irritated me was the fact that the “new and updated!” version (below) is missing an illustration that I found particularly fascinating as a child.

It was a picture of the colonialists sitting in church on Sunday. According to the book, there was someone called a tithing man who walked around the meetinghouse with a long wooden pole with a wooden knob at one end. If you fell asleep during church, he knocked you on the head. I remember loving a double-page illustration of the moment he was about to rap some poor, snoring colonialist on the noggin. For some reason, it’s not in the new edition. Tis a shame.