Caddie Woodlawn

Caddie Woodlawn

Carol Ryrie Brink (1936)

Read to: 1st grade

Read independently 3rd - 6th grade

Perhaps the most interesting part of this book for me was the Author's Note that precedes the story and explains that Caddie Woodlawn was Carol Ryrie Brink's grandmother. Carol Ryrie Brink lived with Caddie Woodlawn from the age of eight, after the death of both her parents. Supposedly there is even a park named in her honor that includes the homestead.

The 24 chapters that follow are largely entertaining - but only mildly interesting. Throughout the 275 pages that begin in 1864, when Caddie Woodlawn is eleven, we see snippets of her life, including her adventures with her two brothers, Tom (elder) and Warren (younger). Because of some health problems when she was younger she is allowed to run free in the fresh air instead of practicing domesticity and stitching as her older sister and other girls her age do. Instead the friendly and almost fearless trio have numerous adventures, including crossing the river and fraternizing with the Indians in spite of the current pioneer's around the settlement having serious reservations about the proximity of the Native Americans. The Woodlawn parents are much more open minded than their neighbors and have passed this stellar trait down to their children. Caddie's willingness to experience the world without succumbing to per-conceived notions is perhaps what makes her such an alluring character. Certainly I have seen a parallel truth in my own life - much preferring the company of un-biased and non-judgmental people. My 6y6m/Kindergarten son was so drawn in by this book that most nights I had to limit the reading time since he wasn't falling asleep as he did with other books. He even commented how much he was enjoying it.

In addition to the enjoyable adventures, the reader is also treated to a glimpse into pioneer life in the 1800s in Wisconsin. We read about circuit riders who work as traveling ministers and only come into contact with parishioners in each town once or twice a year. The townsfolk postpone all significant religious ceremonies until their appearance.

Because this story occurs during the time of the Civil War, there are also some references to soldiers gone to war. (Mr. Woodlawn paid someone to take his place - I didn't know you could do that), politics and Mr. Lincoln and his assassination. Since Wisconsin was not in proximity to the battle ground, these references could be overlooked by a child who has not yet studied this time in American history. There are also glimpses into:

  • food acquisition (hunting and farming)

  • the value of money

  • lighting lamps and fireplaces for light and warmth

  • intermittent mail delivery by steamer

  • a school system that shared its teacher with another town and therefore only had school half the year

  • sewing and mending one's own clothes

  • fighting fires with bucket brigades

  • family values (the children gave their beloved dog to their uncle because he asked and the parents told them to)

  • good works (Caddies spent her own money on classmates who's mom had to leave the area with the Indians)

Another beautiful trait of the Woodlawn family is that their servants or ranch hands are treated like family, or at least a good friend. To support this outlook the author never really defines what is their position, race, or even what their living conditions are. Instead the children interact playfully with Robert Ireton and appreciate his musical talents resulting in having gay times singing folk songs - some of which are written in the book. An illustration of Robert Ireton does not show any physical differences between him and the other characters - perhaps their wasn't, we really don't know since the author does not specify.

In true "old school" fashion the Woodlawn parents were somewhat mysterious. When Caddie is recovering from an illness she discovers a costume in the attic. This leads to a story revealing that her father was a performer as a child. Caddie's grandfather was an English lord who was disowned by his father when he married a poor seamstress. The disowned English lord died when Caddie's father was ten so he performed to help support his mother and himself.

At one point fear of an Indian uprising leads all settlers to move into the Woodlawn house. When Caddie overhears the men plotting to attack the Indians first before they attack the white men, Caddie runs to tell Indian John and convince them to leave the area for a while. Before he goes, John leaves Caddie in charge of his dog and his scalp belt - for which the industrious children set up a show and charge admission (trinkets not money).

There are several instances of foreshadowing in this story. One of which regards a visit from their cousin, Anabelle Grey. She has a bit of pretentious attitude thinking her world (Boston) is the best. The Woodlawn Three set out to teach her a lesson and wind up learning a lesson of their own.

Towards the end of the book a letter arrives and the family must choose whether to move to England and claim an inheritance or stay in the hard life on the pioneer settlement. Oddly the parents are open about this and even let each family member vote.

Also towards the end Caddie wrestles with maturing and becoming more lady-like. We believe she will but never actually see it.

The end of the book comes full circle. Nero the dog comes back (I knew he would) and so does the circuit rider.