29 August 2012

Book Review: Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink

I've been reading a lot of YA lately, and not only that, but a lot of bad YA.  Being thus frustrated, I wanted to revisit a beloved childhood favorite to see how it stood up.

Well, it was good.  Funny, educational, progressive for its time, and providing a wonderful family atmosphere on the frontier, Caddie Woodlawn is still a very good read.  It would pair well with Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books for dealing with a similar time period and place, with the added benefit of being based on a true story.

The story opens in 1864, and Caddie is a young girl growing up in the wilds of Wisconsin. As someone who spent her early childhood in Wisconsin, it's fun to imagine how the "wilds" must have looked over 100 years before I was born, as the Wisconsin I remember from my childhood and the one I re-visit today every now and again is mostly one big, open, flat space of farmland.

It concludes on a major historical note: first the ending of the Civil War, which has had little immediate effect on the Woodlawn family, then the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, which sobers the entire town. We also get a veiled acknowledgment of the privilege surrounding Caddie and her family when we learn that her father paid another man to fight in his stead. I didn't really understand the implications of this when I was child, and as an adult reader it left me with more questions, since Mr. Woodlawn is always shown as a fair, hardworking, and understanding man with a progressive vision of both women and Indians: why would such a man stand on the privilege of his relative wealth to pay another man to fight in his stead?

In between those times, we get lots of adventures with Caddie, many with her brothers Tom and Warren, but the best parts are Caddie on her own, like the night she sneaks out of her house in the dark of night to warn the Indians--camped across the river--that the white folks are planning a pre-emptive "massacree" against them. Or like the way she earns an entire silver dollar from her very foolish uncle, or the way she decides to spend it--not on herself or her family, but on three devastated little boys whose mother abandons them and whom she wants to cheer up.

Caddie's got plenty of spark to her, but she's also fair and true, making her a wonderful heroine even for today's considerably more jaded readers.  It's true that I carried the nostalgia of my youth when re-reading this classic, but I do feel that Caddie Woodlawn holds its own among modern chapter books with a good story, well told, that should resonate with readers young and old.


  1. Aw, I never read this as a kid. But ah yes, the wilds of Wisconsin. With Lutherans lurking in the shadows and cheese just around the corner. (that's how I always see WI, which is RIGHT by us)

    1. Nah, it's pretty much just like you imagined, what with the lurking Lutherans and cheese lying in wait.

      Somehow, all I was able to glean about Illinois and its people growing up was that they were all bad drivers. I think you win this round.

  2. I loooooooooooooooved this book as a kid -- I'm glad to see it stands up to an adult reread!

    1. It's always a crapshoot, isn't it, to read a book as an adult that you loved as a child? We don't like to tear down our own monuments of childhood. And it IS difficult to separate the nostalgia from the review. Still, if you ever go back to re-visit it, I hope you'll let me know your thoughts!


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