Monday, May 28, 2012

He's the Man

Concern with character building is a recurrent theme in homeschool circles. Just recently I read a mother’s request for suggestions of books that would help her teach character. I’m personally doubtful that any workbook will provide material that can convey the virtues and strength of character parents desire their children to exhibit, let alone produce it. However, I do know children are influenced by living models from whom they absorb valuable first-hand experience to imitate. I also firmly believe that some of those people can be encountered in the pages of living books and that those characters can impact the heart and mind of a child extraordinarily.

Ralph Moody has been gone for several decades, but his books could have a significant impact on you and your children. They reveal the real life picture of a boy growing into manhood. The events and experiences he relates in his fictionalized autobiographical series are so skillfully told that they have a lasting influence on the reader. This reminds me of Charlotte Mason’s conviction that living ideas imparted from the mind of the author take root in the mind of the reader, as well as her understanding that facts clothed with interesting ideas and lively narrative will capture the attention of a child and become permanently owned by him.

Something of the fortitude of the early settlers of America was inherited by Ralph Moody, whose ancestors emigrated to Massachusetts in 1633. Born in 1898 to a New Hampshire farm family, they moved out to Colorado in 1906 to benefit his father’s health. This is the point where Ralph’s recollections begin in his now famous Little Britches story. The book recounts the wonder of the wild west to young Ralph and the grueling difficulty of life in the unsettled west. As his family toils to simply exist, Ralph is depended on to help put food on the table. It doesn’t take too many incidents before the reader realizes that Ralph is, well, to be quite blunt, a little stinker. His parents definitely have their work cut out for them to survive, but also to handle Ralph. Still, his untamed boyish impulses are wisely and firmly guided. His personal charm and spirit is infectious. Soon enough the shaping of the man is apparent, and none too soon as Ralph’s father dies three years after the move west and he becomes the “Man of the Family," the title of the sequel to Little Britches.

The succeeding seven books chronicle Ralph’s next ten years of life. The strong family ties, harsh life events, wide array of colorful characters, and how Ralph learns and grows in the midst of them is strongly reminiscent of the type of stories Laura Ingalls recounts in her Little House series. The Little Britches series is valuable not just for life lessons, not just as high entertainment, not just to give unforgettable family reading, but I believe is also fertile educationally. They can be read as historical fiction to describe American life at the turn of the twentieth century; they are valuable as living geography leaving indelible pictures of the Rocky Mountain territories, New England farm life, and the unsettled Southwest and Midwest America. Their appeal is equally strong for girls, though full of rodeo riding, rough cowboys, railroad hobos, and wild west picture shooting. Moody is a masterful storyteller who can capture readers of any age. I have often given these books as gifts to men of all ages.

At twenty-one, Ralph was given a diary in which he wrote two of his life goals: to save $50,000 and to begin writing by the time he was 50 years old. He accomplished both, beginning his writing career the evening of his fiftieth birthday. His formal schooling never went beyond his eighth-grade education, but his living education was rich. He worked as a farmer, a cattle drover, a rodeo rider, and rancher. Though extremely small of stature, his character soon towered above grown men among whom he worked to earn him the respect and trust of every community where he lived. He married, raised three children, worked in the food industry, and was widely sought after as a labor dispute arbitrator. His interests varied widely, including trick riding, cooking, and becoming a skilled sculptor. The goal of writing was realized when he took a writing course with his daughter and his first creative writing assignment of a short story was returned with the suggestion by the teacher to turn that story into a book. Thus Little Britches was born and the rest is history.

Moody also wrote much nonfiction. Biographies include Geronimo, Wolf of the Warpath, and Kit Carson and the Wild Frontier. Readers of any age would enjoy his history books: The Old Trails West; Riders of the Pony Express; Silver & Lead: The Birth and Death of a Mining Town; Stagecoach West; The Valley of the Moon; American Horses; and Wells Fargo. One of our family’s favorites is Come on Seabiscuit!, which I guarantee you will not be able to put down.

On more than one occasion, Ralph’s father is recorded as saying something like, “Son, your character is like a house. Every time you lie, you are tearing off shingles,” or “not being trustworthy is like laying an axe to the foundation,” or “your good reputation, once damaged, cannot be given back.” His father’s wisdom applied for eleven years lasted Ralph a lifetime. His mother’s patience, encouragement, and counsel helped break a wild colt of a boy. I cannot resist adding, by the way, that she was devoted to reading books aloud to her.

I believe it was Douglas Wilson who commented on how much faith it takes to raise boys; it is easier for us to glimpse the woman the little girl may become, but looking forward to a day our young boys will be leaders is often more of a stretch. I am sure Ralph’s mother despaired at times, but good job, Mrs. Moody, Little Britches definitely grew into an outstanding man.

For the joy of reading,


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