Sunday, October 18, 2015

Reading Through History: Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink (1935)

It is 1864, and Caroline "Caddie" Woodlawn is twelve years old. Though her sisters Clara, Hetty, and Minnie, have always been treated like young ladies, Caddie's father has insisted that Caddie be allowed to run wild with her brothers, Tom and Warren, feeling confident that she will come of age when she is ready. In this story, which is based on true stories told by the author's grandmother, Caddie rides horses, associates with Indians, goes fishing with her Uncle Edmund, loses her dog, and plays pranks on a well-bred cousin from Boston, then contributes to an important family decision about the family's future lives as Americans.

Like The Cabin Faced West, Caddie Woodlawn explores daily life on the American frontier from the point of view of a young girl. Though historical events are mentioned - mainly the end of the Civil War, and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln - these are footnotes for Caddie and her family, who receive news slowly and infrequently. The concerns on the frontier are more immediate dangers, such as a rumored Indian massacre (even though the local tribes are peaceful) and a prairie fire which threatens to destroy the schoolhouse. Even these events are not the central focus; this is really a book about Caddie beginning to understand her identity and role as a woman and looking toward adulthood with hope and courage. In this sense, it is less of a book about history, and more of a very personal story which just happens to be set in the past.

This book is a great read-alike for the Little House books, as it is also set in Wisconsin during the same time period, and it covers many of the same types of family experiences and conflicts. The fact that Caddie is twelve should not turn off younger readers, as she is still very much a child, and there is no discussion of puberty as there might be in a more contemporary story. The short chapters and illustrations (done by Kate Seredy of White Stag fame in the earlier editions, and Trina Schart Hyman in later ones) also lend the book nicely to being read aloud to a group of children. There is also a sequel, originally entitled Magical Melons, but more recently published as Caddie Woodlawn's Family, which tells stories from the points of view of some of Caddie's brothers and sisters.

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