A Day No Pigs Would Die
A Day No Pigs Would Die
ROBERT NEWTON PECK
A Day No Pigs Would Die is a novel for young adults by the American author Robert Newton Peck. Published in 1972, it was Peck's first novel, and it soon became widely read and admired. It is currently available in a paperback edition published by Laurel Leaf. The story is about a twelve-year-old boy named Robert Peck who is growing up on his father's farm in rural Vermont in the mid-1920s. The family adheres to the principles of the Shakers, a Protestant sect that flourished in the nineteenth century but had almost died out at the time the story is set. The combination of the austere Shaker beliefs and the family's poverty ensures that Rob learns to do without any luxuries in his life. He is thrilled when a neighbor repays him for a good deed by giving him a piglet, which he calls Pinky. In the ten months covered by the story, Rob learns many things about life as he quickly grows into manhood. He must endure heartbreak and loss, and he learns to be self-reliant and aware of his responsibilities toward himself, his family, and his neighbors. A Day No Pigs Would Die has endured for thirty years as a much-loved book because of its simple, direct style, its humor, its emotional honesty, and its ability to authentically recapture a certain time and place in American history.
Robert Newton Peck was born on February 17, 1928, in Vermont, the youngest of seven children born to F. Haven and Lucile Peck. His father was a farmer who made his living slaughtering pigs, and Robert grew up working with his father on the farm. Neither his father nor his mother could read or write, and Robert, though the youngest child, was the first in the family to go to school—a one-room school on a dirt road in rural Vermont.
Peck's high school education was interrupted by World War II, and from 1945 to 1947 he served as a machine gunner with the U.S. Army's 88th Division in Italy, Germany, and France. He was awarded a commendation. On his return to the United States he enrolled in Rollins College, Florida, graduating with an A.B. in 1953. Afterward, he entered Cornell Law School in New York but did not graduate. In 1958, he married Dorothy Ann Houston, a librarian, and they had two children.
Before Peck became a writer, he worked in a variety of occupations. He was a lumberjack and a hog butcher; he worked in a paper mill and also as an advertising executive in New York City. In 1972 he published his first novel for young adults, A Day No Pigs Would Die, which won many awards, including a Best Books for Young Adults citation from the American Library Association in 1973 and a Colorado Children's Book Award in 1977.
From the publication of his first book onward, Peck produced a steady stream of books for children and young adults. One of the earliest of these was Soup (1974), about a boy named Soup who was based on Peck's best friend during his childhood. Between 1974 and 1995, Peck wrote fourteen novels featuring the adventures of Soup. In 1981, Peck was awarded the Mark Twain Award by the Missouri Association of School Librarians for his novel Soup for President (1978). In total, Peck has written over fifty young-adult novels. Many of these are set in Vermont, but after Peck moved to Florida he set some of his work in that state. Some of the novels have historical settings in the colonial and Revolutionary periods.
Peck has also written a novel for adults, The Happy Sadist (1962); an autobiography, Weeds in Bloom (1995); and two nonfiction books for aspiring writers about how to write fiction. In addition, he has written songs, television commercials, and advertising jingles and has adapted three of his novels for television.
His first marriage having ended, Peck married Sharon Ann Michael in 1995. As of 2008, Peck was living in Longwood, Florida.
A Day No Pigs Would Die begins on an April day in the mid-1920s on the Peck family farm in the town of Learning, Vermont. Twelve-year-old Rob has had an argument with a boy at school and failed to return to class after recess. He sees Apron, a cow belonging to their neighbor, Mr. Tanner, and realizes that she is having great difficulty giving birth to her calf. He runs toward her and, as she runs away, tries to pull the calf from her body, but he loses his grip and falls. He then removes his pants and ties one pant leg to the head of the calf. Apron runs off again, pulling the boy with her. He manages to tie the other pant leg around a tree. This time when Apron moves, the calf comes out. Apron struggles to breathe, and Rob pulls a goiter from her throat. The cow bites him hard in the arm and runs off, dragging him behind her.
Rob is back at home, and his mother and father are tending his injured arm. His Aunt Carrie is there, also. They lay him on a table, and Mama puts many stitches in his arm. His father, Haven Peck, carries him upstairs to his bedroom. His right hand is numb. Later, his father brings him an apple and some spruce gum, and Rob explains further what happened to him. When Papa pulls the quilt up around his throat, Rob can tell by the smell that his father has slaughtered pigs that day.
After staying in bed for a week, on a Sunday Rob helps his father mend a fence that separates their property from that of Mr. Tanner. Papa explains the importance of fences for good relations between neighbors. Mr. Tanner arrives carrying two bull calves—Apron's offspring. Mr. Tanner thanks Rob for what he did and gives him a piglet. Rob loves the piglet and calls it Pinky. It is the first thing he has ever owned. Papa tells him that he must make a pen for her, since the piglet must be housed apart from the cow and Solomon, the family ox.
Pinky follows Rob everywhere, and he enjoys looking after her. His father decides that an old corn cratch close to the barn would make a comfortable home for the pig, except that is it too close to the barn. Haven then explains that with the use of a capstan, Solomon will be able to move the cratch. As Solomon does his work, father and son discuss what they call Shaker Law. The family is steeped in the traditions of the Shakers. Robert says he would like to go to baseball games on Sundays, but Shaker Law forbids it. He says he wants to see the Green Mountain Boys play. He is making a mistake. The Green Mountain Boys was the name given to the Vermont militia around the time of the Revolutionary War, and they were led by a man named Ethan Allen. Rob, however, thinks Allen is a baseball player, although he can find nothing written about him in a baseball book at school. Instead, the book mentions Abner Doubleday as the leading baseball player. Because of this error, Rob has recently incorrectly answered a question on a history test. His father cannot correct him because he is illiterate and knows nothing about baseball or history. Rob tells his father that his schoolteacher, Miss Malcolm, says that as Vermonters they should be proud of their history and also proud of President Calvin Coolidge. (Coolidge was U.S. president from 1923 to 1929.) Haven Peck replies that he is not allowed to vote because he cannot read or write. He says that he and his family are simple folk who live by the Book of Shaker. They work hard and are thankful for what they have. That night Rob sleeps with Pinky in her new crib.
One Sunday, Rob takes Pinky with him on a walk on a ridge near the edge of their farm. Rob cracks open a butternut for the pig and then builds a flutterwheel in a stream. Pinky finds a frog and chases it, but the frog is devoured by a swooping crow. Rob thinks it will be a good idea to have frogs for supper, so he takes Pinky to the sump to look for some, with no luck. As they walk farther along the ridge, Rob sees the Tanner farm below them, looking prosperous. He also sees the two bull calves, named Bob and Bib. Then he reflects on the origin of his own name, Robert. He was named after a Shaker named Major Robert Rogers, who was famous for his exploits against the Indians. As it is getting late, Rob and Pinky run back home. They find that their barn cat, Miss Sarah, has given birth to three kittens.
On a hot day in June, Rob comes home from the last day of school with his report card. Pinky, now weighing about as much as Rob, runs after him as he races for the house. At home Rob finds that his Aunt Matty is visiting. She is not really his aunt but a distant cousin. Rob shows his report card to Mama and Aunt Carrie, neither of whom can read well. The card shows an A for all subjects except English, for which he got a D. Aunt Matty, who is a former schoolteacher, is shocked that he would get a D in English and says that what he needs is a tutor. She decides to tutor him herself and gives him a simple grammar lesson on the spot. She provides a sample sentence and then draws a diagram that divides the sentence up into its grammatical components.
- A Day No Pigs Would Die was adapted unabridged for audio cassette and released by Recorded Books in 1995.
After working all day on the hay wagon, Rob takes a rest as evening approaches. Pinky is with him. Rob watches as a hawk circles the sky and then swoops down on a rabbit, kills it, and flies off with it. This gets Rob thinking about food, and he comments about how well he feeds Pinky. The pig is very well cared for. Rob is expecting that Pinky will be bred with Mr. Tanner's boar and produce many litters.
One night Rob awakens during a thunderstorm late at night. He hears voices downstairs and recognizes them as Mama, Aunt Carrie, and a neighbor, Mrs. Hillman. Mrs. Hillman says that her husband has gone off to the graveyard, but she does not explain fully what she means. Papa summons Rob, and Rob gets Solomon, the ox, hitched up to the wagon. They go out in the rain to the church graveyard in Learning, where they find Sebring Hillman digging up a grave. It transpires that Letty Phelps, a relative of Haven Peck, was once employed as a maid by the Hillmans. Mr. Hillman fathered her baby, who died in infancy. Sebring now wants to claim the child as his own and bury her remains on his own property. Haven agrees to allow him to do this, as long as Letty's coffin remains in the church graveyard. Rob, Papa, and Mr. Hillman then return to the Peck home. It is dawn, and they have breakfast together.
Aunt Carrie and Mama argue in the kitchen. Aunt Carrie is shocked because she thinks that Widow Bascom, who lives nearly a mile down the road, is living with the man she hired as a worker. Mama disagrees with her, saying that it is none of their business. As Rob listens to them talk, he remembers his own encounters with Widow Bascom. He once ran through her backyard and her strawberry patch, and she beat him with a broom. The second encounter was only a couple of days ago, when at her request he helped her move some heavy flowerpots. She gave him buttermilk and gingersnaps, and he met Ira Long, the hired hand. Rob mentioned that he would love to take Pinky to the upcoming Rutland Fair, but the family does not have a horse. Back in the present, it transpires that Widow Bascom told Mrs. Tanner about Rob's desire to go to the fair, as Papa tells Rob that Mr. Tanner has offered to take him there. Mr. Tanner needs Rob to work the two young oxen in the ring, and he says Rob can take Pinky, too. Rob hopes Pinky will win a blue ribbon.
Rob goes with Mr. and Mrs. Tanner in a horse-drawn wagon to Rutland. At the fair, Rob is in awe of the crowds and all the unfamiliar sights. He takes the two young oxen around the ring three times as the crowd applauds. Rob is excited and proud. Then it is time to show Pinky. Rob is appalled to see that the pig has been rolling in some dirt, and he has to buy some soap to get the pig clean. He takes Pinky around the circle but then catches a whiff of pig manure that makes him feel ill. Just as the judge pins a blue ribbon on Pinky, Rob vomits. Mr. and Mrs. Tanner take him back to Pinky's pen and clean him up. Then they point to Pinky, and Rob sees that on the blue ribbon it says, "first prize for best-behaved pig."
Rob returns home and excitedly tells his parents about all the events at the fair. In the morning, as he starts on his chores, Papa brings a dead hen from the coop. A weasel killed it, and Papa captured the weasel, which is in a sack in the tack room. He has yet to decide what to do with it. Rob says that Ira Long has a terrier, so Rob goes to fetch him. The terrier is to be trained to hate weasels and so protect the hen house. Papa puts the dog into an empty apple barrel. Then he throws in the weasel and puts the top on the barrel. The dog kills the weasel, but is so badly injured in the fight that he has to be put down. Papa swears he will never weasel a dog again.
Papa examines Pinky and thinks she may be barren. Rob is upset at this news, since he wanted Pinky to have many litters. Mama sends him out to shoot a squirrel, and when he returns Papa tells him that the apple yield this year is not good. It transpires that Rob made a mistake in the procedure he followed for killing the spanner worms that attacked the buds. Papa is kind to him, saying that he will get it right next spring. After supper, Papa confides in Rob that he is dying, and that Rob must learn how to manage the farm. There is nobody else to do it.
In November, Mr. Tanner brings over his boar named Samson to mate with Pinky to see if she is barren or not. Mr. Tanner inquires about the health of Rob's father, but Rob just says he is fine. Mr. Tanner, who suspects Haven may be ill, says that he should ease up a bit, but Rob says his father is always working. Mr. Tanner asks how Rob is doing in school, and then he talks about how Pinky will produce twenty pigs a year, and that will bring in a lot of money with which they can pay off the mortgage on the farm. Rob wonders whether he should want much money, since as a Shaker his family lives simply. Mr. Tanner lets on that he and his wife are not Shakers but Baptists.
In the winter, Rob's father's health deteriorates. His lungs are bad and he coughs a lot. Pinky fails to produce a litter; she is barren. Since they cannot afford to keep Pinky as a pet, she has to be slaughtered, which Rob's father does one day in December, with Rob's assistance. Rob knows this has to be done and accepts it, but he cries nonetheless.
Papa dies in his sleep early next May. Rob, now thirteen, finds him lying on his straw bed in the barn. Rob does his chores and then informs his mother and Aunt Carrie of the death. Rob takes charge of the situation. He takes Solomon into town and informs Mr. Wilcox, the undertaker and county coroner, of his father's death. He then informs some other people and returns home, to find Mr. Wilcox already there with a coffin. Rob digs a grave in the family plot, and at noon the mourners arrive. Rob says a few words about his father, and then the coffin is lowered into the ground. After the mourners leave, Rob does some chores and then has supper with his mother and Aunt Carrie. After supper he walks to his father's grave and says, "Goodnight, Papa."
Iris Bascom, known as Widow Bascom, is a widow who lives nearly a mile down the road from the Peck farm. Her husband died several years ago, and some people in the community gossip disapprovingly about her because she appears to be living with a man she hired as a worker, Ira Long. Eventually, Iris and Ira marry. Iris can be fierce—she beat Rob with a broom when he trespassed on her backyard—but she can also be kind, as when she offers him buttermilk and gingersnaps after he helps her with some heavy flowerpots. Iris likes Rob and makes sure that Bess Tanner learns about his desire to attend the Rutland Fair.
Bib and Bob
Bib and Bob are the two young oxen owned by Ben Tanner. Bob, whom Rob Peck pulled from the body of his mother, Apron, is named after Rob, who is often called Bob. Rob gets to show Bib and Bob in the ring at the Rutland Fair.
Aunt Carrie is Rob Peck's aunt, the oldest sister of his mother. Nearly seventy years old, she lives with Rob and the family. Like the Pecks, she is unable to read or write.
Jacob Henry is Rob's close friend at school. Jacob makes only one direct appearance in the novel, when he attends the funeral of Rob's father. He seems to come from a family that is better off than Rob's, since he owns a cornet, which he plays in the school band, as well as a store-purchased overcoat.
May Hillman is the wife of Sebring Hillman. They are neighbors of the Pecks. May comes to the Peck farm one stormy night, distressed because she thinks that her husband has gone to the graveyard to dig up the graves of Letty Phelps, their former maid, and the baby he fathered out of wedlock. It appears that May knew of her husband's infidelity and the trouble it caused, but she decided to stay with him.
Sebring Hillman is May's husband. It appears that he is deeply troubled by the affair he had with Letty Phelps, the maid. One night he goes to the graveyard determined to dig up the casket that holds the remains of the baby he had with Letty. He wants to rebury it on his own land and give it the Hillman name, a belated admission that the baby was indeed his.
Ira Long is the man Iris Bascom originally hires as a worker, but they are soon living together, and they eventually marry. Ira is a big man, and when Rob meets him at Iris's house, Ira is friendly toward him. Ira meets Haven Peck when he brings his terrier named Hussy to the Peck farm so that the dog can learn how to kill a weasel.
Aunt Matty is a distant cousin of Rob's. Her full name is Martha Plover. Aunt Matty lives in Learning and visits the Pecks about once a month. Aunt Matty is an educated woman, a former English teacher, and she is shocked when she learns that Rob has received a D for English. She resolves to become his tutor and gives him a grammar lesson on the spot. Unlike the Pecks, Aunt Matty is a Baptist. Her policy as a teacher is to never get angry.
Haven Peck is Rob Peck's father. Nearly sixty years old, he is a serious, hardworking, unsentimental man, a responsible husband and father who makes his living by slaughtering pigs. He believes in strict discipline but he is also a kind, loving father to his son, although he does not show Rob any physical affection. Living according to the simple, no-frills ways of the Shakers, Peck is a good neighbor to Ben Tanner, and he instills in Rob the need for good manners, honesty, and politeness. Peck cannot read or write, and his family is poor, but he is a proud man who does not envy others their riches. He is grateful for the things that he and his family do have. By some measures he is an ignorant man, since he knows nothing of history, and because he is illiterate he is not allowed to vote. He claims that he does not resent this discrimination, but he does tell Rob that he thinks a man should be valued for his practical skills in life, not based on whether he can sign his name or not. By those standards, Haven is an accomplished man, and he also possesses an abundance of common sense and wisdom. When the time comes to slaughter Pinky, Haven, as with all things, gets the job done efficiently and without fuss, taking no pleasure in doing so. Haven has foreknowledge of his own death, and he instructs Rob to take over the management of the farm. The fact that so many people from the town attend his funeral shows the respect held for him among the people of Learning.
Lucy Peck is Rob's mother. She loves and is dedicated to her husband and son, and she does everything she can to support them. Rob says that her voice is "soft and sweet like music." Like her husband, she cannot read or write, but she is a very capable woman who makes all her son's clothes, and she puts stitches in his arm after he is injured by the cow. Lucy is a compassionate woman who is also tolerant; she is not interested in hearing gossip from her sister, Aunt Carrie, about Iris Bascom. She is devastated by her husband's death but carries herself with dignity at the funeral.
Robert Peck, Haven Peck's son, is twelve years old when the novel begins. He is an intelligent, capable, respectful boy who not only learns how to do a variety of tasks on the farm but also does well in school, getting A's in every subject except English, in which he receives a D. Rob has a strong sense of duty, which has been instilled in him by his father. He knows, for example, that it is his duty to help his neighbor's stricken cow, even though he gets badly injured in the process. He respects his parents and his elders, and adults in turn approve of him. He is clearly going to develop into a man of high principles, like his father. When Ben Tanner gives Rob a piglet, he lavishes care and affection on it. It is the first thing he has ever owned. As he approaches his thirteenth birthday, Rob goes through his most testing experiences. First he must accept that he is going to lose his beloved pet pig and must also assist his father in slaughtering it. Then he has to assume the role of head of the family in the wake of his father's death, even though he is only thirteen years old. He passes each test with flying colors.
Pinky is the pig that is given to Rob by Ben Tanner. Rob thinks she is prettier than any other animal he knows: "She was clean white all over, with just enough pink to be sweet as candy." Rob gets very attached to Pinky, feeding her carefully and getting to know all her habits. She is affectionate and playful. Rob expects Pinky to be a brood sow and produce hundreds of pigs and enjoy a long life. When Pinky turns out to be barren, the Pecks reluctantly slaughter her, since they cannot afford to keep her as a pet.
Clay Sander employs Haven Peck to slaughter pigs. He appears only once in the novel, when he attends Haven Peck's funeral.
Benjamin Tanner is a neighbor of the Pecks. He is a decent man and a good neighbor. He is also an excellent farmer; Haven Peck holds him in high regard, believing that Ben is the better farmer of the two. Haven praises Ben to his son, saying, "His fence is straight and white as virtue. All the critters are clean. Mark how he cuts his hay." Ben rewards Rob with the gift of a piglet after Rob helps his cow, Apron, deliver her calf. He also allows Rob to accompany him and his wife to the Rutland Fair. Unlike the Pecks, Ben Tanner is a Baptist.
Bess Tanner is Benjamin Tanner's wife. She is a large, friendly woman who takes a liking to Rob and ensures that he is able to go to the Rutland Fair.
Mr. Wilcox is the undertaker and county coroner in Learning. Like the Peck family, he is a Shaker, and he makes the arrangements for the funeral of Haven Peck.
Death and the Transition into Manhood
When the novel begins in April, Rob Peck is a twelve-year-old boy who is completely dependent on the love and care of his parents. When he is out in the fields helping his father mend a fence, he learns much from the instructions of his father, who teaches him practical skills as well as moral values. Rob is in all respects just a boy, still learning about the world around him; he asks his father questions and his father answers them. His pleasure in acquiring a pet pig is another indication of his young age, as is the thrill he gets from attending the Rutland Fair for the first time.
Nevertheless, during the course of the ten months over which the story takes place, Rob is forced into a rapid maturation. This occurs mostly through his two encounters with death. When the time comes to slaughter Pinky, he learns that sometimes he must sacrifice the thing he loves. He has learned from his father that "you got to face what is." Haven Peck sees Rob's acceptance of the necessity of slaughtering Pinky as a test of his attaining manhood: "You got to face up to it. You can't be a boy about it." Although he is heartbroken by the loss of his pet, Rob accepts what his father says, and in doing so he makes a big leap from child to man. Then, when his father dies, Rob is ready to assume the responsibility of becoming the head of the household. He does not react emotionally or expect to be comforted by his mother or Aunt Carrie. He takes it upon himself to go into town to inform Aunt Matty and Mr. Wilcox, the county coroner, about the death, as well as to write to tell his married sisters about it. He even digs his father's grave.
Two other moments on the day of the funeral show Rob's transition to manhood. The first occurs when Ben Tanner, his neighbor, whom Rob has up to then called Mr. Tanner, tells Rob that from now on he should call him by his first name: "I think two men who are good friends ought to front name one another." The second moment comes after supper, when Rob notices how tired his mother and Aunt Carrie look. He takes it upon himself to send them upstairs to bed. Early in the novel, the same exchange occurs the other way around, but now Rob has matured to the point where he can take charge and look out for the welfare of others.
Being an Outsider
As simple, poor folk who live by the old Shaker ways, the Pecks are in some respects outsiders in the wider community. This is made clear in the very first paragraph in the novel, in which Rob reveals how upset he is by the persistent taunting he receives from Edward Thatcher, another boy at school. Edward mocks Rob because of his old, homemade clothes and makes fun of the "Shaker ways." Although Rob does have a friend at school, Jacob Henry, he is clearly lonely, since he adopts Pinky as his best friend, spends as much time with her as he can, and talks to the pig as if it is almost human. Although his father tells him that they, being Shakers, are not worldly people and are content with the necessities of life, Rob still longs to be more like the other boys he knows. He learns to suppress his desire for a bicycle, but he cannot resist telling his father that he would love to own a store-bought coat, just as Jacob Henry does.
Although Rob's father is on good terms with his neighbors, being poor and illiterate makes him something of an outsider, too. He is unable to fully participate in society, not being allowed to vote, for example, because he cannot read or write. He complains, "When a man cannot do those things, people think his head is weak." He counters this sense of being misunderstood and excluded by developing strong beliefs in the virtues of hard work and competence in practical matters. He convinces himself that on his own terms he is better off than those who have more material possessions: "I am rich and they are poor," he tells Rob. He passes these values on to his son, but even at the end of the novel, Rob, realizing that he has no decent clothes to wear for his father's funeral, reflects that "it's hell to be poor."
Symbolism for the Value of Work
Haven Peck struggles to live his life in the best way he knows. His is a life of simplicity and hard work, dedicated to upholding the core values he has inherited from the Shaker tradition. In this sense he lives a rich life, though outwardly he is poor. After Haven Peck dies, Rob notices something in the tackroom that he has never observed before. As he looks at his father's tools, which are all dark with brown handles, he notices the places where his father's hands had touched the tools: "They were lighter in color. Almost a gold. The wear of his labor had made them smooth and shiny, where his fingers had held each one…. It was real beautiful the way they was gilded by work." The tools therefore become a symbol of the value and dignity of Haven Peck's life. He may not have earned much money in his life, but his tools were nonetheless like gold. He used them honestly and well, and they repaid him handsomely.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- There were a number of utopian-minded communities in the United States in the nineteenth century, including the Shakers. Prepare a presentation for the class that describes the characteristics of a utopian community. Compare the Shakers to other such communities of the period, including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints at Nauvoo, Illinois; the Oneida Community, in New York; the Amana Colonies, in Iowa; and others you may read about in your research.
- Find out as much as you can about raising pigs, showing them, and auctioning them. How do you evaluate the healthiness of a pig? What do pigs eat? What is their proper weight? How do you groom a pig? How much does it cost to raise a pig? If possible, interview a farmer to answer these questions and learn about other aspects of raising pigs. Give a class presentation in which you share your findings.
- Write a short memoir about losing a beloved pet. Describe the circumstances of your pet's death, what the pet meant to you, what you felt at the time of the loss, and how you dealt with it.
- Reread the first few pages of the third chapter in A Day No Pigs Would Die, in which Rob helps his father repair a fence. Then read Robert Frost's poem "Mending Wall." Compare what Haven Peck says, that "A fence sets men together, not apart," with the theme of Frost's poem. Why does Rob think that keeping up a fence is like a war? Does the speaker in "Mending Wall" have a similar opinion? What does the speaker's neighbor say? Write an essay in which you discuss your comparison of these two works.
Nonstandard Grammar and Regional Dialect
The sometimes ungrammatical language in which Rob tells his tale is often appropriate, given the fact that his parents are illiterate and he is getting a D in English at school. For example, in the first sentence, he says, "I should of been in school that April day." He is confusing the similarity of sound between the abbreviated form of "should have" ("should've") and the preposition "of," such that he incorrectly uses the preposition instead of the verb "have." He repeats this several times, notably in the triple-negative statement "There couldn't of been nobody in Vermont who weren't there." Expressions used by other characters capture what appears to be a rural dialect in Vermont at the time. For example, Mr. Tanner says, about Rob's injured arm, "It got tore up worse than proper. May be broke," while Mama later says, "I'm preferenced to mend busted pants than a busted
boy." Expressions such as these, along with similes that perhaps were well-known at the time ("clean as clergy," "true as a taproot") effectively convey the rural and regional flavor of the story.
A bildungsroman is a novel that traces the moral, intellectual, and emotional development of the protagonist from childhood to maturity. This growth usually involves some crisis that is decisive in shaping the protagonist's sense of identity and determining the path he or she is to take in life. Such novels are also known as coming-of-age novels. A Day No Pigs Would Die covers only a short period in the life of the protagonist, young Robert Peck, but in that time he goes through several experiences that lead him to make a leap from childhood to a more adult sensibility and role in the world.
The Shakers were a Protestant sect that originated in Manchester, England, as an offshoot of the Quakers. They were called Shakers because of their habit of shaking, trembling, dancing, and shouting during their religious services. One of their early leaders was Ann Lee. Born in 1736, Lee was given to having religious visions, and in 1772 she declared that she was the embodiment of the female aspect of Christ. In another vision she was told to go to America and establish a church there. She and eight other believers arrived in New York City in 1774, just before the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. They soon began to attract followers. Mother Ann, as she had become known, died in 1784, but the small sect flourished in spite of the death of its leader. Eleven Shaker communities were set up in New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Maine. Interestingly, although A Day No Pigs Would Die is set in Vermont and contains characters who identify themselves as Shakers, there were in fact never any Shaker communities in that state.
In Shaker communities, all property was held in common, and men and women lived separately, in buildings that could house up to a hundred people. Celibacy was the rule. By the early nineteenth century, Shaker communities were also found in Ohio and Kentucky, and by the middle of the century, just before the Civil War, there were an estimated six thousand Shakers living in organized societies. The Shaker communities were run in an orderly and efficient way, and they soon prospered. The Shakers had a strong work ethic. As L. Edward Purcell writes in his book The Shakers, "Work was sacred—and not just any work, but work done to the utmost skill and energy of the worker. Perfection in work reflected a perfection of spirit." (This view accounts for the reverence with which Haven Peck regards work in A Day No Pigs Would Die.) The Shakers' dedication to work was the reason they excelled at whatever they did, whether it was agriculture or making furniture or other household goods. They also developed great knowledge of herbs and herbal medicine, which explains Rob's remark in the novel that his mother had all kinds of remedies for whatever ailed a person: "Mama had give me a spoonful of remedy for one thing or another almost every winter and spring."
After the Civil War, as the nation became more urbanized, the agrarian life of the Shakers became harder to maintain, and it became more difficult for them to attract new converts. Because they practiced celibacy there were no children to whom they could pass on their traditions, so it was always necessary to draw new people into the sect. But as the nineteenth century wore on, it became clear that this was not happening in sufficient numbers for the Shakers to survive for long. By the early twentieth century, Shaker communities began to close, and by the 1920s, there were few remaining Shakers.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1920s: According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 1920, 6 percent of the U.S. population over fourteen years old is illiterate.
1970s: According to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL), less than 1 percent of the U.S. population over fourteen years old is illiterate. However, there is a new emphasis on functional literacy, defined as how well a person is able to function in society. Using that measure, there is widespread concern over falling educational standards and growing functional illiteracy.
Today: According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), among seventeen-year-olds, only one-half of Caucasians, one-quarter of Latinos, and under one-fifth of African Americans are able to read and understand at a level high enough for them to function successfully in college and in the workplace.
- 1920s: Although the U.S. economy prospers for most of the 1920s, many people, especially in rural areas, cannot afford the new consumer items.
1970s: As a result of the "War on Poverty" begun by the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, poverty falls to a record low level of 11.1 percent in 1973.
Today: According to the 2008 Statistical Abstract produced by the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2005 there are 36,950,000 people living below the official poverty line. This represents 12.6 percent of the population. This figure includes over twelve million children.
- 1920s: Shaker communities still exist in very small numbers in Mt. Lebanon, New York, and in Connecticut and New Hampshire.
1970s: Only about a dozen Shakers remain, living in two villages that go back two hundred years. However, there is a strong interest in the Shakers, and eight original Shaker villages attract thousands of visitors who want to learn about the Shaker past.
Today: As of 2006, there are four Shakers left in the world, two men and two women who live in Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in southern Maine. Interest in Shaker craftsmanship remains high, and Shaker furniture items are considered valuable American antiques.
Reviews of A Day No Pigs Would Die were generally positive. For Arthur Cooper, in Newsweek, Peck's narrative is "suffused with wit" and "glowing with warmth." Cooper expresses admiration for the way in which Peck manages to evoke "a sense of a vanished America," and he holds that the author effectively portrays the transition from childhood to manhood in the narrator. Cooper warmly identifies the novel as a "love letter to a father long dead but never missing." In the New York Times Book Review, Jonathan Yardley calls the novel a "modest and affecting little book," praising it as "sentiment without sentimentality" and suggesting that it might appeal to adults as well as older children. However, Richard Todd, in the Atlantic Monthly, disagrees with this verdict, commenting that the novel is "ruinously sentimental." In his opinion, there is a discrepancy between the youthfulness of the narrator and the sophistication of some of his observations: "The book … is full of dialogue and images that are too clever by half, that let the author's self-approval show through." This opinion is echoed by a reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement, who suggests that the story might be regarded as "treacly." The reviewer feels that the more poetic passages about nature seem to come from a voice other than that of the "first-person vernacular which … saltily conveys Shaker turns of speech."
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Peck's novel A Part of the Sky (1994) is a sequel to A Day No Pigs Would Die. Following his father's death, Rob has to work in a store to pay for the upkeep of the family farm. But times are hard, and he has to contemplate selling the farm.
- The Shaker Experience in America: A History of the United Society of Believers (1992), by Stephen J. Stein, is a comprehensive history of the rise and decline of the Shakers. Stein discusses issues such as schisms and doctrinal disputes within the Shaker communities and profiles their charismatic leaders. He takes a revisionist view that questions how successful Shakerism was in living up to its ideals. He takes the story up to the 1980s, describing the Shaker community at Sabbathday Lake, Maine.
- The Giver (1994), by Lois Lowry, won the Newbery Medal in 1994. It is set in a seemingly utopian society in the future, but twelve-year-old Jonas gradually discovers that it is not as utopian as it claims to be. Facing disillusionment, he is forced to examine his own beliefs and make a momentous decision.
- Hatchet (1987), by Gary Paulsen, is the story of a thirteen-year-old boy who survives when the small plane in which he is flying crashes in the Canadian wilderness. All he has with him is a hatchet, and he must somehow summon all the inner and outer resources he needs in order to survive fifty-four days in the wilderness. Like Robert in A Day No Pigs Would Die, he is obliged to undergo a rapid process of maturation.
Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English. In this essay on A Day No Pigs Would Die, he discusses the many ways in which Rob Peck grows from boy to man during the course of the story.
A Day No Pigs Would Die is a novel about the growth to maturity and wisdom of a young boy, set against a background of nature's eternal cycle of life and death. On the Peck family farm in Vermont in the 1920s, young Rob learns early about the mysteries of being born and of dying. The very first scene in the novel is about the painful and difficult birth, assisted by Rob at great cost to himself, of a calf. During the course of the story, as the cycle goes on, Rob learns of the cruelties of nature as well as its beauties. He observes with pleasure that the barn cat, Sarah, has given birth to three kittens, which, as Mama puts it, is "always a wondrous thing to see." He witnesses the painful death of a rabbit, caught in the talons of a swooping hawk, as well as a crow making short work of killing and eating a frog. Moreover, he learns about the necessary cruelties of the interactions between humans and animals on a farm—through the smell of the butchered hogs on the clothes and skin of his father, which never seems to go away; through the ferocious fight between the weasel and the dog (deliberately initiated by Haven Peck and Ira Long), which results in the death of both animals; and of course through the slaughter of his own pet pig, Pinky, whom the family cannot afford to keep.
Shortly after enduring the sorrow that accompanied the painful death of his pig, Rob must learn how to deal with an even greater blow, the death of his father. He is forced to grow up very quickly, and the reader may feel that this is a boy who never really had a childhood. Part of this is due to the poverty of the family, which imposes severe restrictions on the extent to which they can participate in the pleasures that money can buy. Rob never even asks his parents for a bicycle, for example, and the family is unable to attend the Rutland Fair because they do not own a horse. But Rob's restricted childhood is also due to the strict upbringing that Haven Peck gives his son because of his adherence to what he calls "Shaker Law." Although the Shakers had virtually died out by the 1920s, when the novel is set, Haven Peck remains true to many of their precepts, which he believes in with a passion. The Shaker creed is a somewhat austere one. According to Haven, Shakers do not believe in what he calls "frills," and he is even reluctant to allow Rob to accept Ben Tanner's gift of the piglet. Rob has learned early that "in a Shaker household, there wasn't anything as evil as a frill." The Shakers also frown on baseball being played on Sunday, which is why Rob is not able to attend the games he would love to watch, as his friend Jacob Henry does.
There may be much that Rob gains from this strict Shaker upbringing, but he seems to miss out on a lot as well. This is why his trip to the Rutland Fair is an important milestone for him. Up to this point, his life has been very isolated, but he has learned to make the best of it. Before he realizes that he has a chance to actually go to the fair, he is content to put a ribbon around Pinky's neck and pretend that he is taking her. Where his physical horizons are limited, he tries to make up for the lack by using his imagination. But Jacob Henry has told him that the Rutland Fair is a sight to behold, and Rob is thrilled when the Tanners ask him to go with them. Even his father has never been to the Rutland Fair. So in a sense, Rob, at the age of twelve, is already expanding his horizons further than Haven Peck has ever been able to.
Rutland, in fact a smallish town, seems to Rob as if it is almost as big as London, which he has been told at school is the biggest city in the world. He is so excited by all the bustle of the fair that he fears that if he so much as blinks he will miss some of it. One of the moments he will treasure most comes when he enters the show ring with Bib and Bob, the two young oxen belonging to Mr. Tanner. He hears his name announced over a loudspeaker as "Mr. Robert Peck," and he hears the applause of the crowd. In the show ring he is in the limelight for the first time in his life, and it is a moment of triumph for him: "It was sinful, but I wanted the whole town of Learning to see me just this once." This event provides a huge boost to Rob's self-esteem; "It was just like I was somebody," he says. He wants not only his family and his friend Jacob Henry to see him but also Edward Thatcher, the boy who taunts him at school about his poverty and his Shaker ways. Rob's remarks are very revealing. They show how he must have felt up to this point in his life: that because of his humble circumstances he did not really amount to much. It is interesting also that he feels that his thoughts on this occasion might be considered sinful. Perhaps he has learned from his religious upbringing that it is not a good thing to seek or take pleasure in the attention of others; perhaps he thinks this might be considered a sin of pride, of putting oneself above others. But that is not what Rob is doing. He is merely finding for the first time some affirmation of the value of his own life, and he wants others to see it, too. Another interesting point is that he appears not to care that some might regard his desire to be seen in a moment of triumph as sinful; he is quietly ready to reject what he has been told in favor of what he instinctively feels is a good thing for him. This is evidence of the maturing process that his mind is undergoing.
Another lesson that Rob learns during the course of the novel is also connected with religion. He learns the virtue of religious tolerance in a small community in which, it would appear, there is a fair amount of intolerance. He has heard, for example, Jacob Henry's mother talking about the Baptists:
According to her, Baptists were a strange lot. They put you in water to see how holy you were. Then they ducked you under the water three times. Didn't matter a whit if you could swim or no. If you didn't come up, you got dead and your mortal soul went to Hell. But if you did come up, it was even worse. You had to be a Baptist.
When he first discovers that Aunt Matty is a Baptist, he is alarmed to be in the same room with her, even though he is fond of her. Toward the end of the novel, Ben Tanner, who with his wife Bess has been so kind to Rob, tells him that both he and Bess are Baptists. This takes Rob by surprise, but on this occasion, instead of feeling alarmed, he bursts out laughing. He knows that the Tanners, as well as Aunt Matty, love him, and now he knows also that "all of them were good shouting Baptists. It just goes to show how wrong I could feel about some things." This acknowledgment is a humbling experience for him. He realizes that not everything he has been told is true, that he can make judgments for himself, and that what matters is not the religious denomination to which people might belong but what is in their hearts and how they behave toward others. From this point on it is hard to imagine the rapidly maturing Rob condemning others on the basis of what people say about them.
Rob has already been exposed to some of the moral complexities that life presents. By overhearing a conversation between his mother and Aunt Carrie about Iris Bascomb and Ira Long, he has learned that sometimes a man and a woman will live together even though they are not married. Some people, like Aunt Carrie, think this is shocking and sinful; others, like his mother, express a more tolerant view. Rob finds that his mother's attitude is the one that most appeals to him, since he thinks of Iris and Ira as married, whatever the legal niceties of the situation might be. Rob has also discovered, in the episode involving Sebring Hillman's desire to dig up the coffin of the infant daughter he fathered with the family maid, that people do not always stay true to their spouses; that babies are born out of wedlock and that such affairs can lead to suffering and remorse. Rob learns still another level of complexity from his father, both in life and after his death. His father teaches him the virtues of acceptance—of his place in life and of the tasks he is called upon to perform: "Every man must face his own mission," Haven Peck tells his son. He teaches him of the necessity of self-reliance within the context of community responsibility, and it is a lesson Rob learns well.
After Haven dies, a chance discovery by Rob brings a new challenge into focus for him. Rob finds in an old cigar box a scrap of paper on which his illiterate father had been practicing writing his own name. One of the "Haven Pecks" had come out almost perfect. Symbolically, this suggests that in spite of the harsh circumstances in which he lived, Haven Peck's dedication to work, to the Shaker way, and to his family allowed him to live as perfect a life as could be imagined. He had succeeded against the odds. But his careful, repeated practice at writing his own name also poignantly suggests something else. It would appear that Haven may not have been entirely honest when he told Rob that he was not disturbed by the fact that he was denied the right to vote and looked down on by others because of his illiteracy and poverty. On the contrary, this poor treatment must have pained him greatly, as his secret efforts to learn how to write his name show. He did want to better himself in that respect.
Now Rob, in turn, must face an issue that is not dissimilar. Because of the death of his father, he is in all likelihood going to have to give up his education in order to manage the farm. How will he survive? Will he, too, end up like his father, worn down by an honorable life of hard work on the economic margins of society, or will he be able to reach for something better, something that eluded his father? His challenge over the next period of his life is to discover how to write a perfect Robert Peck—how to live the life that most suits his talents, abilities, and desires. At the age of thirteen, thanks to his solid upbringing in a loving home, he has a good basis on which to work.
Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on A Day No Pigs Would Die, in Novels for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.
Teresa J. Lucie-Nietzke
In the following essay, Lucie-Nietzke relates her experience teaching metaphors from A Day No Pigs Would Die.
Imagine this sunset—" … like when Mama poured peach juice on the large curds of white potcheese"—and you will know why Rob, the character who uttered that simile, snared my affection (as did his creator, Robert Newton Peck). Such language is perfect for a farm boy gently metamorphosing into a man. It helps us see what Rob saw—as he saw it. With just his simple Shaker upbringing between him and his experiences, Rob could only describe things in terms farmy and austere.
Teaching A Day No Pigs Would Die to a contemporary literature class, I wanted my students to experience the perfection, simplicity, and honesty that I did in its metaphorical language. But they were jaded juniors and seniors who thought Rob's language was as queer and as backwards as the plastic pocket liners they stuffed into their shirts on nerd day. Like most adolescents, they were threatened by anything very different from their own values and styles. To this group of sophisticated, upper-middle-class teenagers, Rob was a mud-splattered pickup truck in their parking lot of BMWs, classic Mustangs, and sporty foreign cars.
Maybe my cherished farm background made me feel a bit defensive at their responses, but I decided two things: (1) I would help them appreciate Rob's language (not necessarily like it—just appreciate it), and (2) I would help them examine their own metaphorical language (and its implications) and the concept of metaphor without the technical jargon of the traditional poetry lesson.
Before I could address these two goals, I had to place Rob in a context; my students needed background information about the Shakers. In a lecture, I told them about Anne Lee (who founded the Shaker society in the United States), about the shaking and dancing that characterized Shaker prayer meetings, about the surprising fact that the Shakers were a celibate communal group, about Shaker furniture design, and about their numerous inventions, such as garden seeds and circular saws. We listened to a recording of traditional Shaker music and skimmed through books laden with photos of Shaker dwellings. Then I put my students to work. I asked each of them to compile a Book of Shaker Laws as they read the novel. Haven Peck (Rob's father) frequently refers to the Book of Shaker, and I thought this assignment—actually making a list of these Shaker rules—would clearly show students the guidelines and beliefs by which Rob lived.
Once my students began to understand and appreciate (and even like!) Rob's character, I could address my first goal. Most still thought Rob talked "like, y'know, queer." Telling them that Rob was influenced by his farm surroundings the way they were influenced by Madonna and Bart Simpson would only lead to looks calculated to show me that I was not as hip as I thought. So, I divided the class of twenty-two into five groups and distributed a handout (see figure 1).
Most groups responded to the handout's first question—How are the metaphors similar?—with little variation, stating that all the comparisons are about simple, ordinary things or are associated with the farm or country. One of the better responses to the second question—Why are these metaphors used so frequently?—was that as Rob is maturing he is encountering new things; by comparing the new to something old, he understands the new things better. (One of the poorer responses: "That's how the backwoods people talked back then." I still had work to do!) The class agreed that the country/religious metaphors were much more effective in communicating the Shaker lifestyle, Rob's limited experiences, and the world as Rob saw it than other words might be. For example, "lumpy and apricot-colored" would not help us see a very pretty sunset, nor would those words do double duty and show us a simple treat the Shakers might eat. "Perfectly straight and white" does not make us feel the Shaker's rigid adherence to the religious life the way that "straight and white as virtue" does.
Once students realized that Rob's language revealed Rob's lifestyle, the discussion moved naturally to my second goal. I asked students to find two or three of their own metaphors in their journals; then we discussed what their language revealed about them, listing some examples on the board. It was easy for the students to discern the influences in their lives. For example, in the college town where I teach, some animosity exists between the college students and the high school students; one junior girl described college students in a local semi-fast-food restaurant "who act as if their feet have been cemented." Other examples revealed the influence of advertising and material goods on students' lives: "She's as soft as a tube of toothpaste" or "Your face looks like a Big Mac." And, of course, the influence of popular music was readily apparent: "Tina Turner's hair is a mane"; "after his tackle, his nose looked like Michael Jackson's did before his plastic surgery." Students began to glimpse what their metaphorical language revealed about them and their culture at the same time that they more clearly saw Rob as a product of his Shaker culture.
These were two lessons really as simple as Shaker life—only the favorite teacher tools of the chalkboard, chalk, and ditto machine were needed—but learning, as evidenced by a change in awareness and understanding, occurred.
FIGURE 1. Metaphor in Dialogue Based on A Day No Pigs Would Die
Below is a list of metaphors found in the dialogue of Robert and Haven and the pages [Dell paperback edition, 1979] on which they are found. As a group, answer the following questions and be prepared to share your responses with the class:
- How are the metaphors similar?
- Find the metaphors in your text. Why are they used so frequently in the dialogue of Rob and Haven?
- Write a different way of communicating the information provided in each metaphor. Compare it with the metaphor listed. Which method of communicating seems most appropriate for Rob and Haven? Why?
7 bleed like a stuck pig
11 as wrong as sin on Sunday
15 clean as a cat's mouth
20 smell like Sunday morn
21 fence up like it was war
22 clean as clergy
22 alike as two peas
23 like a chin napkin
25 sweet as candy
26 nervous as a long tail cat in a room full of rocking chairs
35 like you'd wind a kite string around a spool
39 true as a taproot
41 hard as winter
48 like her motor was running and wouldn't stop
50 dry, as dust
58 like a hill of barbwire
61 like when Ma poured peach juice on white pot-cheese
70 frosted the wheels like they was cake
75 like a potato dug up on a rainy day
80 ugly as sin
83 clean as an archangel
93 like somebody broke eggs all over the hillside
108 sassy as salt
110 straight and white as virtue
116 colors as pretty as laundry on a line
125 tasted like soap
127 colder than death
128 quite like Christmas morning
Source: Teresa J. Lucie-Nietzke, "As Simple as Shaker Life: Teaching Metaphor in A Day No Pigs Would Die," in Clearing House, Vol. 64, No. 6, July-August 1991, p. 399.
Cooper, Arthur, Review of A Day No Pigs Would Die, in Newsweek, March 12, 1973, p. 98.
"National Assessment of Educational Progress," Web site of the National Institute for Literacy, http://www.nifl.gov/nifl/facts/NAEP.html (accessed July 17, 2008).
Peck, Robert Newton, A Day No Pigs Would Die, Knopf, 1975.
Purcell, L. Edward, The Shakers, Crescent Books, 1991, p. 11.
"Robert Newton Peck," in UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2003, http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_gx5229/is_/ai_n19149312 (accessed September 17, 2008).
"Swine Fever," Review of A Day No Pigs Would Die, in Times Literary Supplement, August 17, 1973, p. 945.
Todd, Richard, "Psychic Farming: Country Books," in Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 231, No. 4, April 1973, p. 114.
U.S. Census Bureau, "Historical Poverty Tables," http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/poverty/histpov/hstpov2.html (accessed July 17, 2008).
U.S. Census Bureau, "The 2008 Statistical Abstract," http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/cats/income_expenditures_poverty_wealth/poverty.html (accessed July 17, 2008).
U.S. Department of Education, "National Assessment of Adult Literacy," Web site of the Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, http://nces.ed.gov/naal/lit_history.asp (accessed July 17, 2008).
Yardley, Jonathan, Review of A Day No Pigs Would Die, in New York Times Book Review, May 13, 1973, p. 37.
Hartvigsen, M. Kip, and Christen Brog Hartvigsen, "Haven Peck's Legacy in A Day No Pigs Would Die," in English Journal, Vol. 74, No. 4, April 1985, pp. 41-45.
The authors of this essay highlight the positive values embodied in the book, including the notions of duty to others and dedication to everyday tasks. They also point out the appreciation Haven Peck has for nature and how he passes this on to his son.
Klyza, Christopher McGrory, and Stephen C. Trombulak, The Story of Vermont: A Natural and Cultural History, University Press of New England, 1999.
This is an exploration of the history of Vermont from the prehuman era to the present. The authors describe the interconnectedness of the geological, biological, and cultural aspects of the region.
Peck, Robert Newton, Weeds in Bloom: Autobiography of an Ordinary Man, Random House, 2005.
In telling his life story, Peck includes some lively anecdotes about his childhood growing up on the family farm in rural Vermont. Much of the book consists of stories about people who shaped his life.
Stein, R. Conrad, Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys, Children's Press, 2003.
Stein tells the story of Vermont's Ethan Allen, who led the Green Mountain Boys in their capture of Fort Ticonderoga from the British in 1775.
"A Day No Pigs Would Die." Novels for Students. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 19, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/educational-magazines/day-no-pigs-would-die
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