Caddie Woodlawn is a chapter book for high-spirited and adventure-loving children. The book is uproariously funny at times, but also contains its fair share of tender moments. It centers on a large pioneering family living in Western Wisconsin at the time of the Civil War. Caddie is 11 years old in the story, and has six other siblings, both older and younger.
The story is one that boys and girls will enjoy equally. Caddie herself is a tomboy, and runs rampant with her brothers, Tom and Warren, taking equal part in their adventures and often leading them. Of all the children, she is the one her Uncle Edmund selects to take pigeon hunting, and it is also Caddie who becomes an apprentice clock smith under her father’s direction.
Caddie’s upbringing is unusual in that her parents elected to raise her “as a boy.” When the family first moved west from Boston, both she and her sister Mary were frail and of a delicate constitution. After Mary died, Caddie’s father – John – begged Caddie’s mother to let him raise Caddie as a boy in order to make her strong enough to survive the brutal conditions of rural Wisconsin. Caddie’s mother agreed, and so Caddie was not raised “to be a lady” like her older sister Clara; she was instead given license to run out of doors, hunt with her brothers, and compete with them in all their games.
As Caddie grows older, she faces increasing pressure from her mother and from others outside the family to begin behaving like a little lady – a prospect Caddie dreads. She is through and through her father’s daughter and loves the independence afforded to her. This issue of becoming a lady is brought up continually throughout the entire story, with Caddie eventually realizing that there are aspects of being a lady that are more advantageous than she realized. She also discovers that she need not give up all her freedom, but that women have additional strengths that many men do not.
But, by the time that Caddie decides she is ready to learn more about quilting and housework, she and brothers have become so intertwined, that they decide they want to learn to do housework, too!
As settlers, the Woodlawn family and their pioneer neighbors have frequent encounters with Native Americans. One Native American in particular – Indian John – develops a strong relationship with the Woodlawn family, and with Caddie especially. When he goes away for a time, Caddie is given charge of his dog and his father’s scalp belt – a relic that the Woodlawn children present to their peers in an enterprising and financially rewarding scheme.
Parents should be aware, however, that Native Americans are frequently referred to as “savages” in the story, and that the interracial children of a white man and Native American woman are sometimes called “half-breeds.” The issue of irrational fear of Native Americans by white settlers is addressed in the book, with the author clearly defending the position that the settlers were wrongly xenophobic, but the language used to describe Native Americans is still reflective of older attitudes and prejudices. Accordingly, parents may want to read these sections of the book in advance in order to be prepared to discuss them with their children.
This book is filled with memorable episodes that set our family howling when we read it aloud together, years ago. Poor Warren’s struggle to memorize his poem of “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” had us all in tears and left us a very unusual aphorism about chicken fricassee that I don’t think any of us will ever be able to forget. Cousin Annabelle from Boston’s visit to the Woodlawn family is similarly memorable, with all 88 of her buttons befalling an unfortunate fate at the hands of the Woodlawn’s sheep. Caddie herself has quite a temper and incites a stand off at the schoolhouse between the school teacher and the oafish Obadiah Jones by bringing a ruler down on Obadiah’s legs which he had ungraciously propped upon a desk.
This book is set earlier than Little Britches, but young readers who enjoyed that series will likely enjoy Caddie Woodlawn as well (and vice versa). It is intended for children ages 8-12 and makes for a boisterous family read-aloud. Young readers will also be glad to discover that Carol Ryrie Brink followed Caddie Woodlawn with a similarly delightful sequel – Caddie Woodlawn’s Family (originally published as Magical Melons).
Have you ever read Caddie Woodlawn or any other book by Carol Ryrie Brink? What did you or your children think of it? Do you remember any of the comedic episodes that we mentioned here, or have another favorite episode that we omitted? Please let us know in a comment below! We always enjoy hearing from readers.
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As I was writing our All-of-a-Kind Family post two weeks ago, I was struck by the many similarities between the final book of that series, Ella of All-of-a-Kind Family, and the penultimate book in the Betsy-Tacy series, Betsy and the Great World. Both are later books in a children’s book series, but neither could reasonably be considered a book for children. In fact, they’re much more books for young women than for children. I know that I personally first read these books well over a decade ago, but it is the more recent re-reads that have impacted me most.
This fact prompted me to consider the role that these books have played in my own life as I’ve grown up, and also to think about how returning to children’s books as an adult can be an invaluable and rewarding activity. In keeping with that idea, today’s post explores how re-reading these books can serve as a source of guidance and solace for young women, in addition to serving as beloved chapter books for younger children.
In both Ella of All-of-a-Kind Family and Betsy and the Great World, the author establishes a markedly different tone from the rest of the series. The topics addressed in these books are more mature than those of prior books in the series, and the tone of both books reflects that fact. In each story, the protagonist is in the earliest years of her adulthood and is seeking both direction and purpose in her life. Both Betsy and Ella also struggle with feelings of isolation. Betsy’s isolation is due to geographical separation: she is in Europe on a year abroad, while her family and friends have remained behind in Minnesota. Ella is closer in proximity to her family, but she is still separated from them through her work and the decisions she must make about her career as a singer and performer. Both characters are bright and accomplished, and are consequently grappling with the question of how best to make use of one's education and intelligence as a young woman at a time when women routinely did not work outside the home, at least not on a full-time basis.
In Ella of All-of-a-Kind Family, Ella is given the opportunity to perform as a professional singer, but instead of singing arias or other classical music, she is cast in a vaudeville show. She faces the question of whether or not she loves performing so much that she would be willing to do this kind of work until she has her big break. She feels a fair amount of shame over the kind of performance she’s a part of, but still she longs to have a career in music. Another obstacle is her long-term beau Jules’ resistance to the prospect of her working outside their home. Her challenging task is to figure out a way to do what she loves and to be with those whom she loves simultaneously.
In Betsy and the Great World, Betsy takes a year off from university to travel in Europe. Her dilemma is less defined than Ella’s and her family is also much more fortunate in their circumstances. Betsy has been frustrated in her university classes and wants to pursue a cultural education, one more appropriate to her aspirations as a writer, and her parents willingly support her in taking a year abroad. Lovelace’s descriptions of Europe in the 1910s are exquisite, even as Betsy is suffering from extreme homesickness and unhappiness throughout the story. This book, coupled with Betsy’s Wedding (the book about Betsy’s first year of marriage), provide good insight into the emotional experience of leaving behind your childhood home and entering into foreign territory, both figuratively and literally.
Another book in this same vein is Emily of Deep Valley, again by Maud Hart Lovelace. In the story, Emily was orphaned at an early age and lives with her aging grandfather. The book focuses on her wrestling with the question of what to do with her life after she graduates from high school, since she is unable to continue her studies at the University. Both because of her old-fashioned -- albeit very kindly -- grandfather’s perspective and for financial reasons, a college education is simply out of the question. Emily was an incredibly bright and involved high school student, and she falls into a kind of depression after graduation, since she has no clear path or idea of what significant work to do next. But slowly she begins to forge new friendships and carve out a rich and meaningful life for herself.
To me, this is the saddest of all of the Sydney Taylor and Maud Hart Lovelace books, but I think I also appreciated it the most for that very reason. Emily doesn’t have the same large and supportive family that Ella and Betsy do, nor does she have the same resources and opportunities. Yet she remains quietly resolved to better herself, her own life, and the lives of those around her. It isn’t always an easy book to read, but it is well worthwhile.
I first read all of these books when I was probably 12 or 13, but then I found myself eagerly reading them again in my late teen years and early 20s. When I read them originally, it was impossible for me to fully appreciate the nuance with which Maud Hart Lovelace and Sydney Taylor approached the subject of young women transitioning into adulthood.
Both authors show young women struggling with wanting to do something with their talents, but feeling thwarted. These characters all must work to create paths for themselves where none previously existed, and they experience loneliness and isolation along the way. The authors also honor their characters’ desires to have families and to find harmony between their work and their ties to their own parents, as well as their ties to their partners and future children.
While re-reading the books as an adult, I was struck by the penetrating honesty with which Lovelace and Taylor approach these more sensitive topics. Children’s literature is so often idealized, and while these books are, too, in many regards, there is also a surprising degree of candor and openness in the characters’ thought processes and conversations with others. That openness is something I greatly appreciated at times in my own life when I wasn’t sure what my next step was, or was struggling with my own transition from late childhood into early adulthood.
So, I would definitely recommend that if you do read these series with your children, you might consider letting them read the later books by themselves and then absolutely keep a copy around for them when they are older. They’ll appreciate it more than you know!