Where It All Goes Down
Vermont in the 1930s or 40s
Vermont's that little one up in the northeast corner of the U.S. Yep, that one.
Oriented? Okay, good.
We're never told exactly when A Day No Pigs Would Die takes place, but based on what goes down in the story, we can guess that it's meant to be sometime in the 1930s or 40s. And our instincts are confirmed (huzzah!) by the fact that Robert Newton Peck was born in 1928 and young Rob is 12 years old in the story. So if it is in fact autobiographical, that would place the action of the book around 1940 or so.
More important than the exact year, though, is the fact that this is not the world as we know it today. Not even close. In the world Rob inhabits, there are no cars, no movie theaters, and definitely no Internet. Even if cars and movies exist somewhere out there (and there's no indication that Rob's heard of any such thing), they sure aren't a part of the experience of Learning.
So we're in old-time rural America, where everyone gets along and the sun is always shining and everything is full of harmony and the peace and joy of living the good life, waking up in the morning and breathing in the fresh air and…wait, what? That's not how it is?
The fact is, as easy as it is for us, with our iGadgets and eReaders, to romanticize the "simple" farm life that many Americans lived in the first half of the 20th century, nothing is ever as straightforward at it seems. In the late 1930s and early 1940s America was still struggling to break free of the Great Depression, and rural folk were hit hard.
Even in the best of times, though, rural life isn't all haystacks and butterflies. There's a lot of hard work involved and a whole lot of sacrifice. Part of what Peck is doing in his spare, no-holds-barred way is playing with our expectations a little. We may think we know what life down on the farm is like, but he wants to remind us that it's often brutal, harsh, and downright miserable.
Shake it Up, Baby
Just what is the deal with the whole Shaker thing? What is Shakerism, anyway? Okay, well, this is a tough one to answer. Partly because Shakerism is kind of complicated and partly because the Shaker religion as it's represented in the book seems to be, well, not exactly what it's like in real life.
Shakerism is a religious movement that began in the mid 18th century as an offshoot of Quakerism. (Who came up with these crazy names, anyway? Actually, both groups were named after their members' tendency to shake it up during religious services.) Like the Quakers, the Shakers believed in the spiritual authority of each individual, and their teachings emphasized peacefulness and cooperation between people. So far, so good. Here are a few other key facts:
- They practiced "communal agrarian living"; that is, everyone living together on a big farm.
- They also practiced universal celibacy—probably not the most popular decision, but whatever. Celibacy was really important to the Shakers. They didn't live in family groups, but in dormitories, with separate sleeping areas for men and women.
- As you might expect from the whole celibacy thing, they didn't really have children (which is one of the main reasons they're not around anymore).
- Oh, and there is no such thing as The Book of Shaker.
Hmmm. Not quite the impression of the Shakers that you get from reading A Day No Pigs Would Die, huh? Actually, kind of totally different from the Shakers in the book, isn't it? Right.
Well, people have definitely noticed this, and Peck has been criticized for his misrepresentation of the Shaker religion (source). It's even been suggested that Peck's claim that A Day No Pigs Would Die is based on his own childhood is misleading (source). In the publishing industry, this is known as "not cool."
So as readers, this sure brings up a lot of questions for us. What do we make of this controversy? How does it affect how we look at the book, or even how much we like it? And is it right for an author to act as though he's an expert on a particular religion, or a way of life, or a group of people if he's really not? Just where do we draw the line between fiction and non-fiction? If we can't trust an author to be straight with us about his experiences, or about the "facts" behind his book, can we trust him at all?
These are some tough questions, and you know what? Shmoop doesn't have all the answers. (Gasp!)