Considered a “modern classic”, this autobiographical novel presents the simple life of the Shakers in Vermont in the 1920’s. Thirteen-year-old Rob’s father slaughters pigs for a living, and Rob proudly participates in the work of the farm. His relationship with his father is one of deep respect and affection as he grows into manhood and accepts new and difficult responsibilities. Young readers will need some time to adjust to the dialect used in Peck’s writing. Once they do, however, they will find that they share many of the same thoughts and feelings as teens from the beginning of the twentieth century.
Unfortunately, Peck included some less edifying anecdotes in his account. In one chapter Rob and his father must go to a graveyard where a neighbor has gone to dig up and claim the body of his illegitimate baby girl. Apparently he had had an affair with a family servant. After the woman gave birth to his child, she drowned the baby and then committed suicide. Later in the book, Rob helps his father and neighbor “weasel” a young puppy. This is the practice of putting a dog and a weasel in a barrel to train the dog to kill weasels. (Needless to say, PETA would have a field day with this!) In this case, the dog kills the weasel but is so badly injured that they have to shoot it to put it out of its misery. Other chapters include gossip about the presumed sexual activities of two community members as well as an excessively graphic account of the attempt to breed Rob’s pet pig.
While modern day children should learn about the hardships of normal farm life, (such as the scene in which Rob nearly gets his arm bitten off by a cow as he helps her give birth), the author could probably have omitted certain details in this book. Readers interested in a coming of age story about a farm boy, might prefer Fred Gipson’s Old Yeller.
Jennifer Minicus is a mother and teacher currently living in Ridgewood, NJ.