Little Britches: Shaking the Nickel Bush

“Nobody likes to go back to his hometown dead broke, but I’d made up my mind to do it anyway. That was in St. Joseph, Missouri, and the night before the Fourth of July, in 1919. And that’s why I was lying flat in a ditch in the freight yards, a couple of blocks beyond the passenger depot.”

That is the first paragraph of the sixth book in Ralph Moody’s Little Britches series. When I was preparing to read this book for the first time, I was warned by Facebook friends that it was a very disappointing offering and quite different from all of the other books in the series. When that first paragraph opened the story, I worried that the critics had been right. I am not going to lie, in some ways they were absolutely spot on. There is no easy way to say this, but in this book, Ralph seems to break our hearts in a million little ways.

That said, I do not think that that adequately describes the story. I do not think that this book would exist in this series if it did not have some redemptive value. There is no question that this book is challenging fare for young readers, but it is not inherently a bad book. A classic coming-of-age story, it may be the most interesting of all of the Little Britches books.

At the end of Fields of Home, we are left with the impression that Ralph is going to go permanently into farming with his grandfather. When this book opens, several years have passed and no mention is made of his grandfather. This disconcerting change of events has caused many of us Ralph Moody fans to wonder, to speculate, to theorize, and to do what little research we could. In my own research, I discovered several interesting things and I want to share them here in case they help other readers have a little perspective on what may have impacted Ralph’s choices in this book.

We know from the beginning of this book that Ralph was passed over for the draft in WWI because he was the head of a fatherless family. Regardless, Ralph tries to enlist and is rejected for medical reasons. Wanting to contribute to the war effort, Ralph works in a munitions plant throughout the war. When the armistice is signed, Ralph returns home and is dangerously skinny. After a series of tests, the specialists diagnose him with diabetes and give him just six months to live. Mercifully, Ralph’s family physician does not agree with the specialists’ prognosis. Instead, Dr. Gaghan recommends that Ralph move west.

“Why don’t you go back to Colorado where you were raised –  or better still, to Arizona where ’tis warm weather all the winter long? Wear as little clothes as the law allows and let the sunshine at your body; there’s no end to the wonders it works.” (P12)

What Moody does not explain anywhere in his books or anywhere that we have been able to find, is why he doesn’t return to his grandfather’s farm. It may be because he needed the warm weather of the Southwest. It may also have been because the family farm suffered a massive fire and may have changed ownership.

Believing that he is doomed, Ralph moves West looking for enough time to make enough money to set his family up before the diabetes claims his life. I think that it’s really important that we understand his psyche so that we can view his mistakes with appropriate charity. Ralph tells us again and again that he is deeply concerned about his family’s livelihood in the absence of a paycheck from him. At this point, his mother has not remarried and she is trying to raise the children by herself just outside of Boston. Ralph states many times it is his goal to send home as much money as possible, without worrying his mother, until his younger brother Hal is through his apprenticeship and can be a sufficient wage-earner for the family.

Understanding that he thought that his life was in serious jeopardy and that he had only a short time to provide for his family, Ralph refuses to cash enough liberty bonds to see him properly set up in the west. Instead, he thinks that he will be able to get a job in the stockyards in Phoenix to see him through the winter months, then he will go north to Colorado where he has friends and connections.  When he arrives in Phoenix, however, he quickly realizes that many returning soldiers have gone west looking for work, and because he did not serve, no one will hire him.

The first chapter is full of all kinds of bad news, and it sets the stage for a deeply fascinating but somewhat troubling story. This real life character we have grown to love in the first five books has always had uncanny good fortune. It would seem that the pendulum has swung the other way. Even when Ralph does everything right, throughout this book, one bad turn leads to another.

Readers will probably appreciate the exciting stories of Ralph’s riding “horse falls” in the movies, his artistic career, his business savvy, and his interesting adventures touring the southwest in his Ford Flivver, “Shiftless.” There is no question that we see a very artistic and exciting side to Ralph that matches the vitality of the horse work he did in the earlier books.

But there are challenges with this book. Ralph is ultimately very decent, pretty moral, and extremely hardworking. That said, he does a lot of lying, he allows his partner to do some stealing, and desperation leads him to break the law on more than one occasion. I won’t dismiss these choices as the realities of adolescence, nor will I justify them in the light of what he was trying to accomplish. Ralph is far from a role model in this book. But, he is still Ralph and his poor choices are fairly understandable. He is wrong, but he is not truly selfish nor is he excited about these sins.

Diane and I have talked about this book many times. Both of us love Ralph and have mixed feelings about this part of his story. Diane mentioned that it seemed as though Ralph’s challenges coincided with the challenges that Americans were facing generally. Post World War I America was a place of fast moving change, industrialization, evolving education and new moral attitudes. In some ways, this book captures some of the tension between the older more pastoral America and the emerging regulated America. So many people like Ralph were caught between the clash of two worlds and two opposing ways of life.

In Mary Emma and Company, Ralph is pulled out of his beloved Colorado and forced into urban Medford (a suburb of Boston). His western work ethic clashes with the progressive law and order of the eastern city life. In Fields of Home, Ralph returns to what he knows and loves: farm work. Confronted by his stubborn and old fashioned grandfather, Ralph comes to terms with a precarious balance between old methods and new techniques. In Shaking the Nickel Bush, Ralph is in a middle place. A wilderness of sorts that is vanishing. His lifestyle and his efforts at work are an ugly and messy discord between the old and the new. In the final two books, Ralph comes to a special place. After being tossed around for so long, Ralph comes into his own. The Ralph of the final two books is the Ralph who is making good on the promises of his childhood.

As I have said in previous reviews, young families will probably want to stop reading aloud at the end of Mary Emma and Company. Fields of Home and Shaking the Nickel Bush would make excellent parent-child book club books for tweens and teens. Both books have a lot of discussion-worthy content. The final two books are for a more mature reader. Ralph is an adult so the content is specific to adult challenges and adult decisions.