When Little Britches: Father and I Were Ranchers closes, we are left with an overwhelming sense of grief. It is near to impossible not to love Charles Moody and the ethic that he instilled in his family. Understandably, Ralph chooses to focus his first memoir on the father who was so crucial to his moral formation and too soon lost to the world. In that first book, we are dimly aware that Mame (Mary Emma) is a powerhouse and well matched to her husband, but we are not overwhelmed by her genius or strength until the end of the story. Little Britches: Man of the Family shifts the focus from one excellent parent to the other. Mary Emma emerges as a lioness – incredibly strong, agile, alert, principled, and committed her to vocation. It is clear that Ralph was enormously blessed to have the parents that he did.
Just like Narnia, my favorite Little Britches book is whichever one I am reading – except for one – but if hard pressed to pick just one, I probably like this one best. But maybe not. Mary Emma and Company is incredibly powerful and A Horse of a Different Color is just so fascinating to me. This really is a powerhouse series that belongs on every family bookshelf in America. This is essential food for the moral imagination and also provides an incredible view of living American history. Ralph Moody is, in my opinion, one of the greatest American authors.
One of the really fun things about the Little Britches books is that they are a bit like berries. All are tasty, all are good for you, all are part of the natural order, and all are flavored differently. Maybe we could compare Father and I Were Ranchers to blackberries – a bit exotic, a bit sweet, a bit tart, a bit wild, and never quite so tasty as when your body needs them the most. If Father and I Were Ranchers is a blackberry, Man of the Family is like raspberries. Also a bit wild and exotic. But more sweet than tart. And always appealing. Man of the Family also ends with well earned tears and mourning, but, to me, it is a more powerful story and the ending feels less tragic and more noble. Father and I Were Ranchers ends as it does because God has worked His will. Man of the Family ends because the family has submitted to their moral conscience and wills themselves to do what is right no matter the cost. This is a story about endless sacrifice, but also of a deepening of resolve and a maturing of character. In Father and I Were Ranchers, Ralph is mentored into goodness. In Man of the Family, Mame, Ralph, and Grace labor for goodness out of their own good character – and it is a thing of beauty to behold.
Horse lovers will be particularly pleased with this installment. While the first book was more about the land and the family, this one is more about the horse and its centrality to the life of the land. In the two years that this book spans, so much depends on Ralph’s relationship with excellent horses. In addition to many horse stories, this book also chronicles details about rabbit breeding and cows. Animal lovers will appreciate the love and care that is shown to the animals throughout this farm life existence.
When judging family friendliness, I always recommend that families look at the age of Ralph and know that as he grows, so too will the storyline. In this book, Ralph is 10, 11, and 12.
As I was saying, a twelve year old boy is too young for such an undertaking. But I do realize that circumstances have given you a great deal more experience than most boys of your age. – Mary Emma
A couple of fine points for parents to take note of when considering this text… in the interest of giving parents full disclosure, there are some details here that contain small spoilers. If you don’t want spoilers, skip this section.
- Birds and the bees. In this book, Mary Emma gives birth to the last baby of the Moody family. The children have no idea that their mother is pregnant until the baby is born. To our modern sensibilities, Mary Emma handles it oddly, but it would not have been totally strange for her time. The children know that mother is not well but they do not understand why.
- More Birds and the Bees: Ralph has 2 female bunnies who are in heat. Mary Emma very delicately helps him facilitate some husbands for the does and soon Ralph is in the rabbit breeding business. It is handled gracefully, but it is unavoidable.
- Dishonesty. Ralph and Grace are challenged several times to make decisions which are morally complex but ultimately involve withholding the truth from their mother and doing some lying. Their intentions are good, they are aware that they are flirting with the line, they struggle under the weight of the guilt, and they get away with it. What is important to note is that the standard they are struggling against is their mother’s preference as opposed to the way things are done by others. This entire series of events is clear evidence of what happens when a single mother is burdened with having to navigate letting other men mentor her son. Men she trusts, respects, and appreciates but who ultimately are not as strict as she is. It is complicated and hard. There simply isn’t a good way through this, and it would be a great piece to talk about with children.
- On the flipside, there are powerful moments of moral conviction. There is a side business that they run that involves being faithful in small and hard things so that God can bless them with trust in bigger things.
- Santa Claus. If you have firm Santa Claus believers, this will likely be a non-issue. If, however, you have children who are on the edge of falling out of belief, this will likely push them over. Grace and Ralph have a detailed conversation about which siblings still believe in Santa and which may not. Then, they conspire to provide Santa gifts for the kids in case they still believe. What they do is beautiful – but it could easily be a Santa Claus spoiler. If you plan to read aloud, it could very easily be skipped over.
- There is some objectionable language. All of it is appropriate to rough cowboy life and is not used for shock value. Ralph recorded the language as he remembered it and so parents may wish to be warned.
This book is just packed to the gills with fascinating and inspiring stories. So much of that way of life is captured here and explained so beautifully. Fiction writers could not have contrived a more lovely story. Ralph shows us again that real life is more interesting than fiction and ultimately worth doing well.
We will be reviewing all of the Little Britches books. Find all that we have posted here.