Farmer Boy, Big Bill Ritchie, and the Gospel

Note: I totally run the risk of alienating any of my female bibliophile readers after the next statement, but bear with me. As a guy, for a long time I have thought that few things sounded girlier than reading the “Little House” books. Perhaps maybe Little WomenAnne of Assorted Greenish and Feminine-Sounding Places, or Heidi may seem girlier by titles alone.

However, my perceptions have changed due to the urging of my wife, who happens to be a huge fan of all of the above books and therefore the most offended by my statement (Sorry, dear.). There was one particular Laura Ingalls Wilder book, Farmer Boy, that my wife kept pushing in my direction. I would be lying if I said that I read it with a totally open mind. However, she is so often right with this sort of thing that you would think I would get with the program earlier.

Farmer Boy has quickly become one of my favorite books, especially of the pioneering/farming/old school genre, and I have looked so forward to working it into our read aloud schedule. After finishing Mountain Born, this seemed like an inspired choice for a follow-up.

This is not meant to be a full review of the book because we have not finished reading it together. This is actually just a mini shout out to the best chapter in the book. Caution: There be spoilers ahead. Ye have been warned.

Here is as short of a breakdown as I can give. The local schoolhouse has long been terrorized by a group of overgrown child savages led by Big Bill Ritchie and his friends. They have made a name for themselves by refusing to follow rules, “thrashing” the teacher, and subsequently “breaking up the school”. The previous teacher was beaten so badly that he died from his injuries. A new teacher, Mr. Corse, has come into the community and is seemingly going to suffer the same fate. The tension in this story builds for the first few chapters, and it just so happens to Mr. Corse is temporarily staying with Almanzo’s (the main character) family. This causes no small amount of anxiety for Almanzo, since he knows what the boys are capable of doing to Mr. Corse.

Now let’s zoom out. My oldest son has been on pins and needles about this whole situation as we have been reading. He abhors the thought of bullying, and this picture of bullying seems to him to be the worst kind of evil. He has let me know after reading the chapters leading up that he is genuinely worried about what is going to happen. I am so pumped because this is what books should do to us.

Well, today was the day we got to see how it turned out. My boys were bored and asked to watch TV. This is generally my cue to pull out a good book. I told my son that this chapter was my favorite from the entire book, and we dug in.

I reminded him first that Mr. Corse has talked with Almanzo’s father about the Ritchie gang, and that Mr. Corse had specifically taken the job because the previous teacher was a friend of his. This led the father to calm Almanzo’s fears about the events because Mr. Corse just may have more to him then he seems.

As I read how the Ritchie boys, joined by his father, purposely stayed out late after recess (so Mr. Corse would be forced to discipline them), my son was visibly anxious. When they stomped in the room and sat down and Mr. Corse called them down, he actually tried to crawl under a couch cushion.

Then Mr. Course stands up and pulls out that snakeskin ox-whip and started going all Liam Neeson on Bill Ritchie and his friends, my son leaped for joy and ran around the room screaming. Big Bill Ritchie was cut up, bleeding, and crying as Mr. Corse threw him out the door. His friends either suffered the same fate or crawled out the window in a panic. Big Bill Ritchie had been defeated.

The elation and joy felt by the students ruined their learning for the rest of the day. Almanzo was surprised to hear at dinner that the whip was actually given to Mr. Corse by his father, and this just made Almanzo’s adulation for his father grow exponentially because he had a hand in saving the day.

I cannot help but see the Gospel in this situation, and I hope my boys see it too. Our sin can look quite hopeless at times, and more often than not it can appear that the Enemy is there to thrash us and break up the school. It can even seem like an inevitability. However, in that moment of hopelessness we can think of Jesus, who went further than Mr. Corse. He let himself be thrashed to death, but on the third day he rose with a power that makes a snakeskin ox-whip look like a feather.

Even though this is not a fairy tale, I am reminded of the Chesterton quote “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” Subsequently, Big Bill Ritchie can be whipped by a mild-mannered school teacher. Sin and death can be conquered by a Savior on a cross.

This truth should make me dance around the living room more often.





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