Monday, February 1, 2010

Classic Monday: Caddie Woodlawn

Some stories from my childhood stand out very clearly from the huge mass of literature I absorbed between 2nd and 12th grade. Caddie Woodlawn, by Carol Ryrie Brink, is one that sparkles in my memory.

Often the books we loved don't always survive the test of an adult reading, but Caddie leapt from the pages as fresh and spirited as she was when I first read her 30 years ago (and yes, just writing that makes me cringe -- 30 years!) I liked Laura Ingalls, but I wanted to be Caddie.

Her life was so much more exciting than mine, running wild as she did all over the woods of Wisconsin with her brothers. I envied her the thrill of riding through the night to warn the Indian village of an impending attack -- I envied her all the adventures she and her brothers cooked up. She was forever doing boy things instead of sitting at home sewing. Mind you, though I wasn't sitting home stitching samplers, I am old enough to remember when girls couldn't play little league (or a lot of other sports) and when we were shunted into home-ec classes whether we wanted to take them or not, so the theme of boy-destiny vs. girl-destiny was one I could relate to.

The language of Caddie Woodlawn is more complex than her sister books, the Little House on the Prairie series, so if you have a reader who loved Laura and Mary et al., this would be a good step up to extend vocabulary and comprehension. It's also a good one if your daughter likes the American Girl books, particularly if she likes Kirsten or Kaya, since the time periods are about the same. Caddie is somewhat more accessible than Little House, I think because there is less that needs to be explained to modern children (read a Little House book and you will find yourself explaining all sorts of things -- butter churns, sod houses, plowing, calico, nose-bags, etc.) But also because Caddie herself is more accessible. Her spunk, her fearlessness, her confusion as she tries to reconcile her tomboy ways with approaching womanhood is one that many girls can relate to, however many opportunities are available to them today. And everyone can relate to the incident with Cousin Annabelle's buttons -- who hasn't done something to be funny and ended up going a little too far?

Other nice touches are Caddie's relationship with her father and brothers and her emerging relationship with her younger sister Hetty and ultimately her mother. The choice her father must make -- whether to return to England and take up the inheritance he is entitled to or stay in America -- is another element that lends depth to the story as Caddie empathizes with her father's younger self. Her developing empathy for others is a theme of the book; in an earlier chapter she chooses to spend a treasured dollar on three little boys who have lost their mother. There is rich food for discussion here -- bigotry, fear of differentness, the nature of compassion, taking action to right a wrong, family relationships -- all are dealt with in these pages and provide wonderful opportunities to talk to your child (and build some critical thinking skills into the bargain).

I would suggest reading Caddie Woodlawn aloud to your child, unless she's a very strong reader. It is a touch slow starting, so it helps to have an adult read the first chapter or two (or even the whole book) to pick up the cadence and rhythm of Brink's writing. Children can always understand more difficult literature when it is read to them, and having more difficult books read to them lays the groundwork for reading such literature by themselves later on. I think there's enough adventure and boy-stuff here that boys would be okay with this book, but since the main character is a girl, it's a fair bet most boys will pass this one by. However, if you have a son and daughter who are close in age, this would make a good family read-aloud book, too.

Like Laura Ingalls Wilder, Caddie Woodlawn was a real person (she was Brink's grandmother) and her story is worth reading again today, both to see how the lives of girls in America have changed, and how at their most basic levels they have stayed the same.

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