Reviewed by Ed Lengel
At a time when so much young adult historical fiction obsesses with contemporary political preoccupations and other grim subjects, it may not be amiss to revisit products of an earlier, more innocent literary age. One such classic is Caddie Woodlawn. Originally published in 1935, it grew out of stories that Carol Ryrie Brink heard from her grandmother about growing up in a small town in Civil War-era Wisconsin.
Caddie is an eleven-year-old girl when the novel begins in 1864. She comes from a large family, and is a confirmed tomboy, spending most of her time rambling in the countryside with her brothers Tom and Warren: hunting, fishing; gathering nuts and cranberries; climbing trees and rafting; skating in winter and interacting with a tribe of Native Americans that lives in a nearby village. Their naughtier escapades run the risk of discovery by younger sister Hetty, who is a zealous tattletale.
The Woodlawns are a frontier family, with homespun values. The country preacher is a welcome guest at the family table, and discipline can be strict. Caddie’s father, though, holds values that would have been considered modern even when Brink was writing in the 1930s. He encourages Caddie’s tomboy ways in the name of fairness and good health; teaches conservation (condemning, for example, the wholesale slaughter of passenger pigeons that would eventually drive them extinct); and encourages his children to respect rather than fear the local Indians. He also harbors a secret about his birth country of England that is revealed gradually over the course of the book.
Life is hardly all fun and games for Caddie and her family. Uncle Edmund takes the beloved family dog Nero for a visit to St. Louis, only to lose him in the wilderness. Vicious animals such as rattlesnakes lurk in the wild. And violence is an ever-present threat. In the one-room schoolhouse that harbors students from ages seven to twenty-one, for example, bullies provoke fisticuffs and even threaten the teacher. Looming over it all is the Civil War, which carries off young men and provokes worries that Confederate agents will convince the Indians to attack white settlers.
Fears of an Indian massacre lead to the book’s central crisis. Caddie and her father, who have come to love and trust the local Native Americans and their leader, John, work to allay the settlers’ panic. In a neat turning of the tables, however, it turns out that the real potential victims are not the settlers, but the Indians, as some whites motivated by “race hatred” consider a preemptive massacre of their own. In the school, meanwhile, a white husband expels his own Native American wife out of shame, even though she is the mother of their three children.
After playing a heroic role in facing down this crisis, Caddie encounters dual challenges to her own childhood identity in the book’s concluding chapters, leading into the spring and summer of 1865. As she turns twelve, she begins to consider the daunting transition to womanhood with all of its new values and responsibilities. At the same time, she and her family members face a crucial decision that forces them really examine how they feel about being an American.
Winner of the 1936 John Newbery Medal for children’s literature, Caddie Woodlawn was beloved by generations of schoolchildren. The original homestead, now the Caddie Woodlawn Historical Park near Downsville, Wisconsin, was still heavily visited when Brink wrote a new introduction to the book in 1973. Since then the book’s luster has faded somewhat, partly because of unfair comparisons with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s more-famous Little House on the Prairie, and partly (ironically) because of criticism of Brink’s allegedly patronizing treatment of Native Americans. This is a shame. Though a product of the time in which it was written, and of the 1860s which it recaptures so beautifully, Caddie Woodlawn remains an enthralling and delightful read for youth and adults. Hopefully future generations will rediscover its merits, and learn from its hopeful vision of the United States.
Ed Lengel is the Chief Historian at the National Medal of Honor Museum; Arlington, Texas