Donald Halls's Ox-Cart Man
Illustrations by Barbara Cooney
Children's book review by Steve Barancik
Most books get less relevant with time. I know a lot of people who think this book's subject matter grows ever more relevant.
Ox-Cart Man is little more than a story that captures what it was like to live as a family on a small farm some hundreds of years ago.
But because that way of life is so alien to most of us, the book doesn't need to be anything more. And because more and more people are growing their own gardens, raising their own chickens, and looking to a questionable energy future that they aren't quite so sure will be as full of wealth and automobiles and even jobs...
Those people are looking at living off the land as a possible future, the alternative to which may be not living.
If you're one of those people, Ox-Cart Man is just the book to share with your children to show what it's like to meet your own needs by working with the land and living in harmony with the seasons. (The book, by the way, is a favorite with homeschoolers.)
The titular Ox-Cart Man is the father of a young family. The reason he is so referred to is that it is Fall when we meet him and he's preparing to pack the family's excess production onto an ox-cart and to take it to market.
It's a ten day journey. Review continues.
At market Dad will sell his goods, buy the few necessities the family needs that they don't produce themselves, and return home. (He'll be doing that without ox and cart, as a young replacement ox is already munching hay in the barn and a new cart is is already on his Winter to-do list.
This children's book about farming features a lack of material excess that might prove striking to young readers! The only luxury a year's work brings is two pounds of wintergreen peppermint candies.
No Xbox! No iPhone! Nary a misplaced consonant nor vowel to spare!
Indeed, while the family is glad Dad has returned, it's quickly back to work on stitching and whittling and cooking.
(You might point out to your kids that these picture book kids don't have time to get bored!)
Hall spends the rest of the book making sure we know how all those goods the Ox-Cart Man brought to market were produced.
Cooney illustrates it all in a way lovely enough to have won her a Caldecott Medal in 1980.
I think most young children will see the way of life depicted in this book as a pretty good one. There are lots of animals (none of them killed, by the way), and children are not only not too young to help, they're expected to help.
The words, "You're not old enough," are never spoken!
Ox-Cart Man won't awe or dazzle, but it depicts a happy family taking care of themselves in a time much more typical of human history than our own. That alone makes it pretty special.
Read more of Steve's reviews.
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