Posted in Book Lovers Community

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.

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Little Britches #5: Fields of Home

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.

From Geni.com:

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.

Grave of Thomas Gould

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.

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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.

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Just for fun, the family at Harrison Farm seems to have found the Gould Farm. According to an entry at Geni.com, it seems that the farm burned to the ground in 1919.

We will be reviewing all of the Little Britches books. Find all that we have posted here.

 

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Little Britches #4: Mary Emma and Company

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Mentoring is a critical theme woven throughout the first half of the Little Britches series. Despite the incredible hardships that his family endures, Ralph Moody is very clear that God always looked out for them and rewarded their faithfulness in interesting ways. In new places and new circumstances, God not only provided the work requisite to support the family but also generous friends and excellent mentors.

In Mary Emma and Company, the Moody family has returned to Boston after being forced to leave Colorado.  Their eastern flight was made so secretly and so quickly, that they had precious little opportunity to make arrangements for their return to Mary Emma’s Boston family. Generously, Mary Emma’s brother and sister-in-law pour out incredible kindness and support on the young family when they arrive.

The Moody family strictly believes in hard work, integrity, and faithful adherence to God’s principles. The moral character of their family is awesome to behold, especially in true adversity. While Mary Emma struggles to find meaningful employment, the family is perplexed. They do not want to slip into dependence on generous family members. Instead, they struggle to find work and housing as quickly as possible. Everything in Massachusetts, however, is different from Colorado. And, in many ways, harder.

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Since his father’s death, Ralph has helped to provide for the family’s needs in substantial ways. Once they are settled in his uncle’s apartment, it is Ralph’s first priority to find employment. Sadly, however, Ralph learns that Massachusetts state law requires boys to attend school. Ambitious, creative, tenacious, and persistent, Ralph finds a job at the grocery store that he can do before and after school. While the store has no horse, Ralph’s western experiences have trained him well in how to earn the respect of his employers and give his best effort. And ultimately, the men Ralph works for become good mentors for Ralph, and valuable friends to have.

Families who have loved the western themes in the earlier books may be worried that this story won’t be as satisfying. Ralph, however, is still very much the Ralph we have come to love, and he readily employs that western spirit in incredibly creative ways in this new environment. His western experiences have trained him to see things from an entirely different point of view than that of his new neighbors. This different vantage point provides some exciting experiences and makes for a really good story.

Also consistent with the first three books, Ralph makes friends, good friends, very easily. He is naturally likable, quite honest, clever, and broad-minded. The Moody family is blessed more than once because of the men who respect Ralph and the boys who are loyal to him.
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In the western books, Ralph knew many good honest men. Nearly all of them, however, were a bit rough around the edges. In this new environment, Ralph is blessed with strong male family members who help him develop a more cultured approach. Additionally, Ralph is befriended by men of the world who understand law and business. These mentors will provide Ralph with a solid orientation in citizenry and commerce that will come back to Ralph as an advantage in the later books. The kind of education that Ralph acquires in Boston is far less technical than his western experiences but far more social and cultural.

For young families, this may be the last book in the series that you will read until your children are older. This book marks the end of Ralph’s childhood. The next book, The Fields of Home, takes a harder and more mature tone.

The first four of the eight Little Britches books could easily be shared by families over a long winter in the evenings. This interesting and elegant book ends on a very sweet and optimistic note. I think that all of the tears I shed in this one were tears of joy and tenderness.

Goodbye, young Ralph. Yours was a boyhood that makes my mama’s heart full and proud.

We will be reviewing all of the Little Britches books. Find all that we have posted here.

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Little Britches #3: The Home Ranch

This article is going to be shorter than the others in the Little Britches series because this book is pretty unique for the series.

Near the end of Man of the Family, we learned that Ralph spent his last summer in Colorado working for Mr. Batchlet. That summer proved to be a very important season in Ralph’s life, but not one that he could explore in Man of the Family. In the second installment of the Little Britches series, Man of the Family, Ralph concentrates on the family storyline and how they were learning to exist without his father’s support. We do get one chapter dedicated to his summer, and it’s a good one! When that book closes, however, the family is headed East.

Before advancing that storyline, Ralph dedicated the third book of the series, The Home Ranch, to that special summer. While there were lessons that he learned about himself during that experience, there was no way to capture that summer in the second book.

While the first two books mark the passing of time, critical milestones, and help us understand the family life that was so essential to Ralph’s development, this one is more a collection of vignettes.

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In this third offering, we are treated to a really fascinating look inside of ranch life through Ralph’s experiences. This is a story that is a celebration of the cowboy life, the grit of the men who do the work, the tenacity of the women who support them, and the mentoring that older men offer to younger men in this precarious existence. Ralph learns incredible technical lessons, develops an interior life of self reflection, and we get hints at what his own future might look like.

Readers of the second book may open the third book and be crushed when they realize that we are not going to hear about how the crisis of the family’s flight is resolved. Where the second book ends, it is very difficult to want to go backwards and look into an experience that only deepens our regret at Ralph’s loss when the family had to leave. I was so irritated on my first reading that I closed this book and jumped to the fourth. Frankly, you can do that without missing a beat.

This one is such a standalone that you can really read it anytime after the closing of the second book. It does not advance the overall plot line of the series, but it does enrich it.

Despite my being discouraged about the out of order nature of this one, it is a fantastic book. And many of the lessons that Ralph learns in this book come to serve him well in the fifth, seventh, and eighth books. (The sixth book is a detour in Ralph’s life and is very different from the other books in the series.)

If you are doing this series as a read aloud and you have horse loving listeners, I would read this one in the appropriate order. If you choose to skip the book so that you can see what happens after they leave their farm, do make sure you come back to this one. The Home Ranch is a book about mentoring, independence, and hard work.

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We will be reviewing all of the Little Britches books. Find all that we have posted here.

Posted in Book Lovers Community

Little Britches #2: Man of the Family

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.

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A blue roan like Ralph and Hi’s pair of horses

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

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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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

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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.

 

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Little Britches #1: Father and I Were Ranchers

“Ralph Moody’s books should be read aloud in every family circle in America”—Sterling North

In 1950, Ralph Moody enrolled in a writing class at a local community college and was inspired to write his first book, Little Britches: Father and I Were Ranchers. The book went on to serve as the first of an eight book series chronicling Ralph’s childhood, certain moments of his adolescence, and his young adulthood. Many have called it Little House on the Prairie for boys. It is a fair comparison, but it is so much more than that as well.
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Autobiographies are a very unique genre of books. And, in my opinion, they often fail to merit much true attention. Autobiographies written such that they can be shared with the entire family are even more unique because that which makes a life interesting does not always make it family-friendly. Finally, autobiographies that span a series of books are rare – and when done well – very special. In the case of the
Little Britches series, families have the opportunity to grow up with Ralph and spend hours upon hours sharing in his remarkable story.

Ralph Moody lived a very storied life. I’m not sure why it took him until the second half of his life to discover that he was a writer, but maybe it was because he was too busy living it to really capture it on the page until then.

It’s often said that you should write about what you know. Perhaps Moody became such a successful storyteller because he spent so much of his life really coming to know things. His early life was blessed with a strong and excellent father who wasted few opportunities to help Ralph harness his natural intelligence and raw potential and build his character. As we see in Father and I Were Ranchers, Ralph had a knack for attracting good mentors who genuinely loved to walk alongside the boy and share their wisdom.

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There are three things in particular that Ralph knows very well and is able to convey with absolute sincerity, intrigue, and passion: horses, the vanishing West, and traditional American values. It is the way that he blends these three subjects that makes him such an important author for young people today. His stories capture a bygone era and do so in a way that shows respect for the reader and the subject matter.

Moody’s writing voice could be compared Louis L’Amour, but it has a more wholesome and more youthful tone. Where L’Amour tends to describe things beautifully, Ralph has a habit of speaking about them more simply, almost more honestly. In all of the Moody books I have read, I have been struck that Moody’s appeal is not in how he says what he says, but in what he chooses to say. Moody has an inherent sense for the tidbits and stories that will matter the most. Perhaps the fundamental difference between L’Amour and Moody is that L’Amour wrote fiction and Moody wrote nonfiction. While Moody would likely never have use this word, I think that it is fair to say that Moody was a curator of stories. He knew what readers wanted to know and gave it to them.

“Should be read aloud in every home in America.” – Chicago Tribune (as noted on the cover of the audiobook)

Since its publication in 1950, Moody’s Little Britches books have been continuously in print and have proven to be a great American story. In 1906, eight-year-old Ralph’s family has just moved from New Hampshire to Colorado in the hopes of saving Mr. Moody’s life. Charles Moody had worked in the woolen mills and his lungs were infected and giving out on him. It was hoped that the dry and clean air of a Colorado ranch would restore him to health.

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Charles Moody is a man of intensely good character and his wife Mary Emma (Mame) is strong, smart, loving, and thoughtful. The family arrives in Colorado only to discover that they have been misled and cheated. Their easy ranch life would be painfully hard and often desperate. Throughout the story, we watch their situation unfold through Ralph’s eight-year-old eyes and learn, as he does, how valuable good character really is. Despite so much bad luck, the Moody’s scrape an existence out of the harsh landscape in large measure because of their keen intelligence, faithful commitment to doing what is right, and ingenuity. Their integrity, sense of community, and traditional values win them loyal friends among their neighbors.

Throughout the story, we have a foreboding sense that no matter how hard they work something devastating is always around the corner. Time after time, they put their shoulder to the plow and push forward trusting in Divine Providence and the making of their own good luck.

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Ralph is a wonderful storyteller. He spares no expense when recounting his own childish sins. Instead of trying to make himself look good, he owns his mistakes and then reveals his father’s parenting genius. Charles Moody was a father for the ages. Wise, patient, loving, firm, and good at explaining things to Ralph. This book, Man of the Family, and Mary Emma and Company are some of the most wonderful examples of excellent parenting I have ever studied. If I could be half the mother that Mary Emma was, I would count myself fortunate indeed.

A fantastic family read aloud, this book is living history, a true story, a handbook on parenting, a love story about horses, a Western adventure, and a treatise on family values. I introduced this book to my very young children and they return to it almost annually in audio and in print. My littlest one was so taken, at 3 years old, with Ralph’s stories that his entire Christmas was dedicated to horse themed Playmobils that we called “Little Britches Playmobils”.

A word of warning: there are a couple of occurrences of the word d**n. It is not intended disrespectfully, but is the vernacular of the cowboys. Also, there is the tragic death of Ralph’s beloved horse. In fact, Ralph has to kill her to stop her acute suffering. It may go over the heads of young listeners and could be glossed over if read aloud.

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The end is painful. Even on my third reading I sobbed through it. Parents of sensitive readers will want to read ahead and prepare their children. It ends with hope, but only after total tragedy.

Our family has loved the printed text because of the illustrations (done by Moody) as well as the incredible audio book. Cameron Bierle is a wonderful narrator and he does all of the books in the series. He sounds just as a cowboy should sound.

Reviews of all of the other books in the series can be found here.

“A most appealing book . . . Its genuineness and its simplicity will build up a large audience of enthusiastic readers.”—San Francisco Chronicle