You know that genre of book that you read because you found it on your parents' book shelf? This is one of those.
Peck’s novella is part of that genre of short fiction that is long on detail and character but short on story. Robert – our narrator – is a twelve year old boy at the beginning of the book and a thirteen year old ‘man’ at the end. He lives in Vermont on a farm in a Shaker community sometime in Coolidge’s administration – he mentions the possibility of voting for Coolidge, which puts the time between 1925 and 1929. The plot, such as it is, is that he nearly kills himself helping a neighbor’s cow give birth to two colts and gets a pig in return. He names it Pinky, raises it with the intention of making her a breeding sow, and takes her to a fair. She wins a blue ribbon, but turns out to be barren and thus must be slaughtered by Haven – Robert’s father. So: the pig dies. The title is bullshit. After the pig dies, so does Robert’s father. Robert organizes the funeral. The book ends.
The narrative structure is really simple: it’s a story of transitioning to adulthood through the acceptance of things that are miserable. We must be cruel to grow up is essentially the message.
What makes the book worthwhile is the precise dillineation of the world in which Robert lives. I had to look things up: what the hell is a cotter pin? A corn cratch? A windrow? Each chore and task describes simple hard work. The boy is sent to shoot a grey squirrel so that he can cut out the stomach, dry the semi-digested nut means in it, and use them to sprinkle on a chocolate cake. He struggles to yoke an ox because the yoke itself is nearly as large as he. The brown worn spots on his father’s tools speak to a lifetime of use. Every step of moving the corn cratch (it’s like a small wallless house for corn!) is described. The creation of the winch; the chain attached to it, the ox’s slow circling movements.
The good-writing lesson: a world is evoked by the precise naming of the tasks within it.