Lara cannot for the life of her figure out why her parents have come to the conclusion that getting herself and her little sister involved in the agricultural version of the 4-H clubs is a brilliant idea. The home making ones are tedious enough, although cooking and sewing and fixing up your clothes closet could just possibly be useful things to know at some far distant moment in her future, but how exactly is raising a pig going to turn out to be a life enriching experience?
She also fails to understand why Ainslee seems quite excited by the prospect or why she’s always loved to muck about in the barn, wearing rubber boots and sometimes getting right into the pig pen with the dog and getting him to bark and harass the pigs, risking getting herself stomped on and trampled into the manure in the ensuing pig stampede. Their dad does frown on this particular activity, saying it’s not a good idea to get the livestock all crazy. Maybe he’s hoping Ainslee will believe this if it comes from someone else. And maybe he’s hoping Lara will learn how to distinguish a pig from a cow or a horse. God knows she’s never shown much interest in anything even remotely connected to the barn or farming in general. Lara wonders if maybe he’s embarrassed by both his agriculturally impaired daughters, for whatever different reasons. Neither one of them really has any choice about it in the end, they’ve both been enrolled and the Swine Club is about to become a part of their formative years. It’s definitely an experience that neither of them will ever be able to forget.
The first thing they have to do is go on a pig shopping expedition, where the girls are more or less just along for the ride. Lara thinks getting a dog or a cat would be a lot less tedious, and Ainslee sees a goat that she likes, but what they come home with are two little pink piglets. They are not allowed to name them. These are animals that will go to market and they are definitely NOT pets. Ainslee thinks they’re beautiful, and Lara thinks they stink.
The first 4-H meeting they attend is run by real live farmers and made up predominantly of farm boys. Ainslee is immediately best friends with all of them, but Lara keeps her distance. If she doesn’t get too close maybe she won’t ever have to know whether or not they also stink. They are given a bunch of swine related reading material, and growth and feeding charts that they are supposed to fill out over the course of their pigs pre-market lives. Since neither of the girls see the pigs again until it’s time to show them at the fall fair, these have to be completed creatively by their father before they can be handed in. He seems pretty sure that no one reads the damned things anyway, but just in case, he makes sure they’re not identical. The rest of the book work they do on their own, also quite creatively. Which you could also call ‘making things up to fill in the blanks because no one reads it anyway’. When one of the boys at one of their meetings misreads the word “stunted” as “stunned” they have to look away from each other or risk falling off their chairs laughing. Apparently a pig’s growth can become “stunted” for all manner of reasons. If this stuntedness also makes him stunned, you are in deep trouble. No one wants to hear about that, never mind actually having to come face to face with a stunned animal, pig or not. They work hard at home after the meeting coming up with a list of dos and don’ts to keep in mind so that you never have to blame yourself for making your pig a stunned mess unsuitable for bacon.
On one of their meeting nights the group travels around to four different barns to put into practice some of the things they have learned from their avid reading of the information that’s been passed out to them. Unfortunately, Lara and Ainslee have never read any of it, or if they did skim over it they can’t seem to recall whatever they were going on about, so the judging of livestock is a whole new concept for both of them. At one barn there are four Holstein cows in a stable, for all intents and purposes looking to Lara to be identical except for the numbers taped to their backs. Each 4-H club member is required to put them in order from best to worst and then be able to tell everyone the reasons why. Ainslee contemplates the animals and then begins to fill out her paper. Lara is confused and nervous and has no idea at all how to proceed. They all have heads and ears and necks and stomachs – okay, that one has a kind of droopy gut, and that one has sticking up hip bones. Are those bad things for a cow? The udders look udderly. She has no clue what everyone else could possibly be scribbling diligently away at. So she jots down a few inane comments, puts the numbers in random order and hopes to God nobody wants to see or hear how she came to her conclusions.
When they are asked to reveal what order they have placed the animals in, the reasons she’s hearing still make little sense to her. A shiny coat? Surely that one was made up. Head carriage, body length, strong legs, hoof wear and tear, topline. They might as well be speaking Greek. Even Ainslee comes up with wide rump and muscle definition. So she has obviously been cheating and paying attention behind Lara’s back.
Ainslee is quite delighted that she picked the right animal for number one, but she put the second place animal last. HA! says Lara, so much for your rump theory. But Lara has them in the exact reverse order they’re supposed to be in, for no better reason than thinking one of them had a nice face. Ainslee wonders if anyone else in the history of 4-H has been this stupid, and can’t imagine it’s very likely.
When fall fair time finally rolls around, both Lara and Ainslee are equally surprised at what enormous brutes their little piglets have become. You might even say they are rather STUNNED by the change. They know their fellow 4-H club members have been bathing their animals and sprinkling them with baby powder and practicing ‘showing’ them by leading them around in a circle for all the fall fair patrons to gawk at. So they roll up their sleeves and scrub them down and powder them up and try to get the hang of walking beside the silly things without getting stepped on or left behind or worse yet, being unable to get them to budge. It’s all way more work than either of them bargained for. Their dad reminds them that their older brother placed first in showmanship at a previous fair. They wonder what his secret could have been, because these pigs appear to be obstinate stubborn fools with no sense of direction. He tells them you don’t ever try to lead or guide a pig, you just follow it around, tap it with your stick a bit and pretend wherever it’s headed is exactly where you wanted it to go.
There are twelve swine club members in the competition from various locations in the county and ten of them are dead serious about the whole thing. Lara can’t keep her stupid pig clean and smudge free and finally gives up trying and Ainslee uses so much baby powder that hers looks like an albino. When it’s time to go into the ring they both can’t stop glancing at each other and grinning like demented maniacs, although to do so is to risk losing your pig in the crowd or laughing out loud and probably embarrassing your father in front of all the other (much prouder) farmers. Plus neither of these things is likely to impress the judges. Who in the end have not been favourably impressed or fooled at all. Ainslee’s pig places twelfth and Lara’s is awarded eleventh place. Poor things, but somebody has to be last, and it’s possible that the judges put them there because they rightly sensed that their particular owners were the least likely to care.
For showmanship, Ainslee is eleventh and Lara is dead last. Lara thinks this placement could be in part a reflection on her unfortunate choice of footwear, among other things. Sandals and pig rings should never be mixed. At least one lesson learned. Despite the dismal results their dad seems to be quite pleased with them both and assures them that second last and last place is still fine pork and tastes as sweet. A rose by any other name in pig latin or something. He never brings up the option to them of joining the next 4-H club, and they don’t mention it to him either. Two stunned pigs from his farm are perhaps enough for one lifetime.