March 11, 2019
Our family's experience reading Little Britches
We first read Little Britches aloud as a family when my brother and I were somewhere between the ages of 10 and 12. Over the years, we read a lot of books together, but this one was certainly one of everyone’s favorites. I don’t remember how quickly we went through this book, but I do remember that we begged our mom to please read just one more chapter every single night. (We were also very glad to discover that Ralph Moody wrote 7 more books in his autobiographical series – but more on those in another post).
Little Britches is the captivating story of a New England family that moves to Colorado in the beginning of the 20th century to take up ranching. The book is narrated from the perspective of the young Ralph Moody, or as he comes to be called, “Little Britches.” Moody does a fantastic job of capturing the excitement of the rural west at that time, as well as many of the dangers and inherent difficulties of living there. In reading this book, it's hard not to become entranced with farm work, horses, and especially with the entire Moody family.
When the Moodys first arrive in Colorado, their land allotment is poor and the house promised to them in a dilapidated condition. Most of their savings had been poured into the move, so the only animals they can afford at first are two old nags – both far from ideal for farm work. Additionally, Mr. Moody's health continues to suffer, despite the fact that the family had moved to Colorado in hopes of improving it.
But nevertheless, the family places their faith in God and is determined to make the best of their less than ideal circumstances.
Becoming a “cow poke”
The responsibilities that Ralph assumes in Colorado are serious ones, and the work he undertakes suitable for a much older man. When he is 10, his father agrees to let him spend an entire summer on a ranch about 20 miles from home. There, he works with a gang of “cow pokes” that take him under their protection and tutelage. These ranch hands adore and respect him, and Little Britches looks up to them in turn.
Ralph's job at the Y-B ranch is simple, so to occupy the rest of his time, a cowboy named Hi Beckmann helps Ralph break in a beautiful blue roan mare called Sky High. Hi also teaches Ralph to perform all sorts of stunts and tricks with her.
Over the course of the summer, Ralph becomes an excellent rider and horseman, and even competes as a pair with Hi in the Labor Day Round-Up trick riding competition. Ralph’s description of trick riding is definitely the high point in this book, and quite possibly even more exciting than going to see an actual rodeo!
Overcoming the on-going difficulties of ranch life
Although the family does begin to fare better, their life in Colorado is never easy and they continue to be a family of relatively humble circumstances. Their crops occasionally fail, and from time to time an animal might become injured or die. In times of drought, Ralph’s father and his neighbors fight over water access with men upstream of them, with shots fired on both sides. Mr. Moody’s health also deteriorates as the book progresses.
But no matter how poor in means they may be, the Moody family remains rich in integrity, spirit, and resourcefulness – a fact that makes them well-respected and even beloved members of their community. The Moodys also pride themselves on being rich because they have a God who provides for them, and also because they have one another as companions.
The Moody family
Throughout the book, Ralph’s family reads aloud together – on picnics, in the evenings, and on holidays. Usually mother reads aloud to them, although later on the entire family acts out plays from Shakespeare. The children and the parents all cherish this special time that they are able to spend together. Each member of the family plays an important part on the farm, whether it be taking care of the animals, helping father in the fields, or mother around the house.
Ralph has a particularly special relationship with his father, and this relationship is to me the most moving aspect of the book. Mr. Moody is a man of few words, but remarkable character. Ralph respects him more than anybody else in the world and always strives to make him proud. In particular, Ralph feels tremendous pride when his father asks him to be his “partner” on the ranch, and begins to shake his hand whenever they part. When his father speaks to him of his wrongdoing, conversely, Ralph takes heed and does not need to be admonished twice.
Becoming a man of integrity
Ralph’s father also speaks to him often about the importance of character and of always being “open and above-board.” In an episode where Ralph has deceived both of his parents about his reasons for borrowing a horse, his father tells him:
“A man’s character is like his house. If he tears boards off his house and burns them to keep himself warm and comfortable, his house soon becomes a ruin. If he tells lies to be able to do the things he shouldn’t do but wants to, his character will soon become a ruin. A man with a ruined character is a shame on the face of the earth.”
This memorable allegory stays with Ralph through the remainder of his life, even after his father passes away.
The first book is recommended for children ages 9-12. It can be read independently, although I would suggest that it makes a phenomenal read aloud. It is an especially good read aloud for boys or any child with lots of energy and a love of adventure.
Ralph himself is between the ages of 8 and 11 in this book, and notes that he is placed in 3rd grade in the beginning of the book and then in 6th grade at the end. (His sister Grace is 2 years older than he is, while the rest of their 3 siblings – Phillip, Muriel, and Hal – are younger.) It could be both interesting and exciting for children to read when they are his same age, although older children and adults will enjoy it, as well.
As a note of caution: there are some difficult moments in this book, all of which are related to the realities of homesteading and none of which are gratuitous. The book, for instance, begins with both of the Moody’s horses falling through a train trestle. Although both animals do survive the ordeal, this section can be hard to read. If you have younger or more sensitive children, you may want to read the first two or so chapters to get a sense of how the author addresses these difficult topics before reading them aloud with your family.
Share your experience
Have you or your children ever read Little Britches? If so, tell us about your favorite memory of reading it in a comment below!
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