Reading ‘Seven Loaves of Bread’

From the looks of it, you’re in rural Pennsylvania. Perhaps Virginia. The farmland rolls and the path down to Mrs. Bandy’s house tapers in the way of eastern rural places. The texture takes a pinky-purple hue, though blues and the persistently green land background almost every one of illustrator Katie Keller’s scratchboard scenes. On top of a hill, you meet Milly and Rose, who live on a little farm and work to keep it going — well, Milly really does the work, and Rose tries to avoid it.

I first met them around November of last year, I guess. The book Seven Loaves of Bread by Ferida Wolff (illustrated by Keller) arrived at our house in one of my daughters’ routine library hauls. After I read it to them one night, we determined to buy a copy almost immediately. Only, Seven Loaves of Bread proved not an easy find. Wolff claims a few relatively popular (according to Amazon) titles, such as Is a Worry Worrying You? and The Story Blanket, but Seven Loaves of Bread isn’t one. We did find a copy though, and the first two pages bear a red “discard” stamp, apparently signifying that the Chattahoochee Valley Regional Library no longer saw a use for the little farm occupied by Milly and Rose. But I do. 

I’ll tell you why. 

Wolff tells a cyclically structured story, in plain, straightforward prose, of Milly, who wakes early and bakes, as you might guess, seven loaves of bread. Of these loaves, only one remains in the house. The other six go like this: One for the dog, one for the goat, one for the hen, one for the peddler, one for the rooster, and one for Mrs. Bandy down the road. Rose whines about all the work that goes elsewhere, and you read repeatedly that Rose “didn’t like to work any harder than she had to.” But Milly insists, “It’s as easy to make seven as it is to make one.” She explains:

After all, the dog chases the crows, the goat pulls the car, the hen gives us eggs, the peddler brings us supplies, the rooster wakes us up, and old Mrs. Bande has stiff hands and cannot make her own.

When Milly takes sick, like it or not, Rose assumes the bread baking duty. She likes it not. Day by day, Rose finds ways to make one less loaf. At first, she skips a loaf thinking she’ll make it easier on herself, but as disorder claws steadily throughout the farm, Rose ends up neglecting the loaves because of other tasks — urgent tasks, we’d say — arising. Because the hungry dog needs to find food, he doesn’t look out for crows, which end up ransacking the garden. The unbreaded goat breaks free from his pen and runs away. The hen doesn’t lay an egg, because she sets herself to pecking for food. Rose gets caught trying to remedy all this, and in her panic can’t make a loaf to trade with the peddler, who moves along without the farmhouse getting restocked. And old Mrs. Bandy, who cannot bake for herself, goes unfed. 

Remember six months ago when we heard over and over about the so-called quiet quitting? The overhyped concept described a phenomenon wherein employees did only a minimum amount of work at their jobs, thereby quitting but quietly. Quiet quitting turned out maybe not to be a thing. But some of the research it precipitated does seem to reveal Rose-like dispositions among the young portion of the American workforce. For example, an Axios/Generation Lab survey suggests a tidal 82 percent of workers younger than 30 either already do the bare minimum at work or find that path “appealing.” No doubt several intertwining factors play into this, including a fast-diminishing sense that you owe your 9-to-5 anything beyond your job description. Still, I bet you’re not all that surprised that a tall majority of people see “appeal” in the bare minimum, are you?

Talk to the parents of a teenager or to high school teachers. Ask a college professor about her last few classes of students. Go to just about any store and see whether or not you agree that something broke with customer service. Again, I’m not the person to parse out the extent to which these conversations include pandemic-onset obstacles, inter-generational dynamics, or national economic factors. I can’t pretend all of it boils down to a hard work aversion. 

But I do think we — families, churches, workplaces, America’s social fabric — face a plague of “good enough.” Of a weird mix of laziness and emotional distance from the things we actually do. I know, I know, perfectionism something something. I’m not talking about trying to be perfect; I’m talking about giving something your best attempt. And my best attempt. I’m talking about seeing the ways the stuff we do and don’t do affects those around us. Sure, good enough may be good enough for a minute. But nothing in this life starts and stops with you. 

We spend a lot of time in our house reading children’s books. We buy a lot, we borrow a lot. And that takes a lot of searching, because a forest’s worth of children’s books barely meet the standard of readability, with a disproportionate amount of them outright terrible. You can sift through so many movie character-licensed nonstories and preachy “educational” pages that only thinly veil the corporate powerpoints. And stacks and shelves of books ostensibly aim to empower little readers/listeners by boosting their senses of self. Very good. But too often these books present an unsituated, unfamilied self, a self that in reality can never really live anywhere or really do anything. Because, like Rose, the characters in these stories can rarely see beyond their lazy, emotionally distant selves.

Despite her ignorant attempt to do less work, Rose sees the truth of Milly’s starting out advice. “It’s as easy to make seven as it is to make one — and a lot less work.” By skipping a loaf or two, Rose creates more work for herself. To reorder the farm, she now must feed the dog and chickens. Without the goat to pull her cart, Rose walks to Mrs. Bandy’s house. She then needs to find the goat and repair her pen. Re-secure the peddler’s services. Replant the garden. All because she thought it might be easier to make less. 

Rose learns, and so do we, that the boring, seemingly too much work of making the seven loaves of bread accomplishes more than charity. Each of the seven loaves play a part not just of routine but of the life of the little farm on top of the hill. 

You can find plenty, probably thousands, of worthy books to read and to read to the children around you. Some famous for good reason, some familiar for emotional reasons, and I hope you find this one, obscure for no reason. Reading Seven Loaves of Bread, you see a community that relies on its members. Milly and Rose depend on their neighbors, the hodgepodge mix of animals and humans, for the things they need, and their neighbors depend on them for things they need. Each belongs. Whether in Pennsylvania or Virginia or somewhere else entirely, you see a harmony sustained by trust, rhythms, and steady work.

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