“In October he backed his ox into his cart and he and his family filled it up with everything they made or grew all year long that was left over.”
With these words begins the classic Ox-Cart Man, written by Donald Hall and illustrated by Barbara Cooney. This Caldecott Medal winner is a treasure of spare American storytelling, and a tribute to the canny resourcefulness of settlers who eked out a living in the wilderness prior to the Industrial Revolution.
The story is short and simple: an early nineteenth-century farmer loads up his cart with the harvest and makes his annual trek to the market in a New England port town. The contents of his cart represent months of work for his family: broomsticks carved the previous winter, mittens knit from wool that had been shorn from the sheep in spring, produce that had grown through the summer and finally ripened for winter eating. He walks for ten days, sells all his goods, and then as the autumn wanes he walks back home to his waiting family with a few strikingly simple treats from town. Immediately the family settles back in to producing all that they need – and more – in another year on their isolated farm.
With geese flapping and maple syrup boiling, this picturesque representation of pioneering sustainability is enough to please any small reader, but it also reaches much deeper. Cooney’s colorful early-American paintings depict a family working in cooperation with the turning seasons, harvesting what they need as it becomes available from the earth and the animals. Each person contributes in this diversified rural setting, and their requirements from town are remarkably few (“an embroidery needle that came from a boat in the harbor that had sailed all the way from England.”).
Although the Man and his family are given no names, we begin to share a certain intimacy with them as they gather in the bounty of the year and settle in for winter. Working with placid expressions, they exude a contentment that is perhaps a trifle nostalgic, but also very desirable. The Man – who splits his own shingles and stitches his own harness – has a kindly temperament; when he finally sells his ox he first kisses him on the nose.
This rhythmic story makes a valuable imprint on a young child’s mind. It grants not only an insight into how people lived for generations, but also an appreciation for the skills they learned to survive. The necessity of their hard labors is softened by their triumph in meeting all their own needs, and ultimately living a good and quiet life.
From toddlers interested in farm animals to middle-grade students with a budding love of history, this book is a peaceful read-aloud with children. With sweet stylized pictures and lyrical text, it is a finely-textured praise of traditional skills, self-reliance, and an unbreakable family bond.
If you liked this book you might also enjoy: Yonder by Tony Johnston and illustrated by Lloyd Bloom (Sadly, this book is long out of print, but well worth finding used or in a library.)
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