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Twelve-year-old Robert is a Shaker growing up in Vermont. His father works hard to keep the farm going but he also works slaughtering pigs for a neighbor. Papa makes sure that Robert goes to school to learn how to read and write, opportunities he himself never had. But Papa is also passing down practical wisdom for running a farm and the qualities of a good man and a good neighbor.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this book but I ultimately found it to be a surprisingly touching story of a boy on the cusp of manhood.
Robert is fairly innocent in the ways of the world (he thinks that the tiny town of Rutledge, Vermont is almost as big as London). But he also has a practical knowledge of survival and animal husbandry. It’s a striking contrast and could make for a good discussion. It’s easy to giggle at his naivete but I ultimately respected him and the choices he had to make. He has an inner strength that sometimes feels rare these days. He’s also much more in tune with nature than most of us today will ever be. There’s truly a season for everything in his world yet he still stops to appreciate a lovely day.
Reading this for the first time as an adult, Papa’s story touched me just as much as Robert’s. He’s an intelligent man who never got an education. He feels the lack keenly.
“‘Then why can’t you vote? Is it because you’re a Shaker?’
‘No. It’s account of I can’t read or write. When a man cannot do those things, people think his head is weak. Even when he’s proved his back is strong.'”
Papa has buried two stillborn sons, he takes care of an elderly aunt, he works hard on another man’s farm, and yet finds time to take excellent care of his own land. He seems to be a rock of the community. He lives by a simple code but it’s an honorable one. I have to admire him.
This semi-autobiographical novel will upset some readers who are even remotely sensitive to animal deaths. Farmers have to make some tough calls. Some of the things they do are incomprehensible to those of us who just walk into the grocery store and grab a nicely packaged steak without ever seeing the cow it came from. My grandparents and uncles have a small farm with some cattle and hogs and I grew up right next door. Parts of this book were still hard for me to read because I do love animals and the descriptions were fairly graphic. But the author is writing from experience so this is all part of his childhood. No one in the book sets out to be cruel but some scenes will come across that way to modern readers.
This book is most definitely not for every reader. Some of the animal scenes are quite harrowing. But it is ultimately a touching story of a father easing his son into manhood.
Banned Books Week:
I chose this book because it was fairly short and #16 on the list of the most frequently challenged books from 1990-1999 (most of my school years). Mostly, it’s been banned and challenged because of those graphic animal scenes. I can honestly see how a parent could object to them. But that doesn’t give anyone the right to remove it from everyone else’s hands.
If you liked A Day No Pigs Would Die, you might also like my reviews of
- How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff
- Leaving Gee’s Bend by Irene Latham
- A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly
Buy A Day No Pigs Would Die from Malaprop’s Bookstore in beautiful Asheville, NC or