In my review of the fourth book in Ralph Moody’s Little Britches series, Mary Emma and Company, I said goodbye to young Ralph. That book closed the chapter on Ralph’s childhood. Fields of Home chronicles Ralph’s debut into young manhood. No longer a child but not yet a man, this chapter of Ralph’s life extends through two books, both of which are hard.
Fields of Home is a mixture of tenderness, toughness, innocence, and deepening maturity. It is a wonderful demonstration of character and family loyalty, but it also has some coming of age challenges. I recommend this book to teens and their parents. Specifically, I think that this would make a fantastic parent-child book club or teen book club book. While there is nothing overtly immoral in this story, it would be a heavy book for a younger audience. I have asked my Ralph Moody loving nine year old to wait to read it.
In Mary Emma and Company, Ralph struggles to fit into the societal customs of urban life. His independent country mindset finds him on the wrong side of too many legal situations. While Ralph is pretty innocent, he cannot escape the bad boy label that has been misapplied to him. In a desperate attempt to save her son from serious trouble, Mary Emma sends young Ralph to live with her father, Thomas Gould. Thomas is a war veteran, and a tough, old-fashioned farmer. Misunderstood by many, ornery as a rule, and stubborn as a mule, Thomas has a habit of driving off his sons and hired help. When Ralph comes to the farm, Thomas is in his seventies, set in his ways, and practically impossible to get along with.
About Sgt. Thomas Jordan Gould (USA)
Soldier and Farmer who suucceeded his farther on his return from his countrys service and by his industry, resolution ads self denial, transfromed this rocky hillside into a fertile farm.
Lisbon Maine, The History of a Small Maine Town: pg. 21: “Jacob Gould, mentioned briefly in an earlier section, was born in 1768 and died in 1862 and was one of the pioneers who settled in this town and helped restore it from the wilderness. He was nineteen years of age at the time. His son THOMAS J. GOULD who was born in 1841 and died in 1929, succeeded his father upon his return from the Civil War. Through hard work and self denial he transformed the rocky hillside into a fertile farm. Sadly enough the farm burned flat at midnight in July of 1919. The deed to the farm was granted by Governor Bowdoin to Jacob Gould who built the first frame house on it in 1810.”
Before Ralph even lays eyes on the farm, he is warned by locals of Thomas’s thick-headedness. By the end of Ralph’s first day on the farm, he is already making plans to run away to Colorado. Generally good-natured and respectful, Ralph finds Thomas and his housekeeper Millie practically impossible to get along with. Frustrated, but of good character, Ralph knows how important it is to help his grandfather get the wheat in, so he resolves to stay just long enough to finish the harvest. Even that personal resolve, however, is about break when Uncle Eli makes a surprise visit. Praise God for Eli!
Uncle Eli (one of Ralph’s mentors from Mary Emma and Company) is Thomas’s brother. Younger than Thomas, we discover that Eli left the family farm decades prior because Thomas had driven him off too. The Gould and Moody character, however, runs thick in this group of men and Eli, despite his frustration with his brother, never fails to come when he is needed. His coming is the salve that heals Ralph’s wounded pride just enough to keep Ralph on the farm to finish the haying. By the time that the hay is in, Ralph decides to stay on.
Throughout the next year, Ralph, Millie, Eli, and Thomas have personal successes and failures. They have fights with each other and make-ups. As they rub against each other’s respective strong wills, they grow as individuals and as a team. You could say that Ralph comes of age in that year and becomes a young man worth knowing.
Fields of Home is as much a story about family dynamics, pride, and forgiveness as it is about farming and husbandry. In this very interesting story, we see a clashing of the times. In Eli we see mechanical and interpersonal genius that has one foot in the past and one foot in modernity. In Thomas we see traditional and hard working farming genius. In Ralph, we see a brilliant blend of intuitive farm genius coupled with modern mechanical skill. In many ways, Ralph is the blend of the two older men and each loves him for it. As hard as it is for Thomas to consent to modernizing, and as hard as it is for Ralph to accept a farming mentor who isn’t his father, they ultimately form a powerful team which is strengthened by Eli’s regular visits and Millie’s keen farm sense.
Throughout the book, we get a serious education in farming. Ralph takes great pains to explain to us how his grandfather is utilizing old techniques (and why) while he also explains his modern contributions. This is a deeply interesting look into a largely forgotten way of life. Today, farms look nothing like this. A bit like reading James Herriot, this book showcases that tension between old farming and new. Sadly, the “new” farming ushered in the industrialization of farm life, which ultimately led to small family farms being absorbed by larger commercial farms. Many have said that Moody and Louis L’Amour wrote the books they did to capture the Wild West before it was gone. I think that something similar is at work here with the vanishing family farm.
An interesting theme throughout this book is that of “wasting.” Thomas is a veteran, a second generation farmer on the family homestead, a father, and a grandfather. He has a profound sense of preservation. He wants his farm to pass to his heirs in better condition than he inherited it. Part of his ideology is a deep commitment to saving. Sadly, however, he lives like a pauper to keep money in the bank and forces everyone in his sphere to do the same. When Ralph is truly hungry, he is scolded for eating the eggs Thomas intended to sell. Thomas takes saving to an extreme and is afraid of trying new and profitable ventures out of fear of failure. How this works itself out is very interesting.
One word of warning to parents: Ralph’s first real love interest is explored in this story. The pretty farm girl next door is Ralph’s first kiss, and that romance is lightly explored. Clearly there is nothing scandalous, but it is romantic and Ralph’s descriptions are scattered throughout.
For all of his faults, Thomas is a deeply honest man. He is also a man of character, regardless of his foibles. This beautiful story shows that even a 73 year old man can grow as much as his teenage grandson does. There is a cow trading scene that is a good example for teaching honesty.
I usually say that Mary Emma and Company is my favorite Little Britches book, but I think that I have to apologize for that and own that this one is really my favorite. The descriptions of farm life are so fascinating, and the way the family dynamics are explored is really lovely. Absolutely more challenging than the earlier books, this one is very good reading and would be excellent food for young adults.
We will be reviewing all of the Little Britches books. Find all that we have posted here.