Friday, September 5, 2008

"A Day No Pigs Would Die" by Robert Newton Peck

This is the story of Robert Peck, a young Shaker boy growing up in Learning, Vermont. He's just a boy when the story opens but he's soon to be man, both through his own actions and by circumstances beyond his control.

When the book opens, young Robert spies his neighbor's cow, Apron, trying to birth her calf. Robert tries to lend a hand when it becomes clear that the calf is stuck; there's some hilarity in him trying to "rope" the end that's already out with his pants and then having to run after Apron in his underpants when she takes off across a field. Eventually, the calf does fully arrive in the world, only to leave his mother panting and gasping for breath in an unnatural way. Robert can see something lodged in the cow's throat and, knowing that a cow never bites, he reaches in to try to remove the object. What he doesn't know is that the object is actually a goiter and that his belief about cows biting is no more than an old wives tale. Apron tears up his arm and he passes out...

When he regain consciousness, Robert learns that he helped Apron birth not one but two calves, twins that the neighbor names Bib and Bob. He also learns that he did indeed remove the object, the goiter, from Apron's throat and that she's just fine now. To thank him for his help, the neighbor gives Robert a beautiful piglet which the boy names Pinky. It will be his responsibility to care for and tend to Pinky and breed her down the road, thus ensuring a good living for him and his family. His father slaughters pigs for another neighbor, and recognizes that it would be good for them to have their own pigs.

But this is a coming-0f-age story, so you know that all will not end on a happy note. Pinky turns out to be infertile and Robert must help his father kill her and dress her out; once grown she's too costly to keep as a pet. Also, Robert's father, Haven Peck, is not well and tells his son that he'll soon be taking over as man of the house, a very heavy weight for a boy of thirteen.

It's a well-written story and probably somewhat autobiographical, as the author himself grew up in the Shaker community in the same part of the country. It's easy to see the yearnings of young Robert for a more "worldly" lifestyle as a universal truth, one that is all too obvious today. It was nice to read about people who knew that hard work never hurt anyone and that you should work for what you earn. I would recommend this to just about all ages.

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