|Illustration by Trina Schart Hyman, c. 1973|
Carol Ryrie Brink wrote both Caddie Woodlawn and Magical Melons (the latter being episodes she couldn’t fit into the former) about her grandmother’s girlhood during the early days of Wisconsin, when girls were expected to be ladies and Indians were expected to be bloodthirsty, white-scalping menaces. Caddie proves both assumptions wrong.
Because she was a sickly child, Mr. Woodlawn has decreed that Caddie be allowed to run wild in the great outdoors for the sake of her constitution. The story starts with tomboy Caddie out-misbehaving her roughhousing brothers, much to the distress of her mother and more orderly older sister. Egged on by her prankster Uncle Edmund and antagonized by her snobbish cousin from the East Coast, Annabelle, Caddie doesn’t always act like the hero of the story, often behaving more naughty than noble.
One characteristic about Caddie, however, sets her apart, and that is her generosity and open-heartedness. She shows unbigoted kindness to Native Americans throughout the story, whether it be buying provisions for orphaned half-caste schoolboys with her prized silver dollar or preventing an ethnic war between the local Indian tribe and her white neighbors.
Another important theme in Caddie Woodlawn is the characters’ identity as Americans. Mr. Woodlawn is an immigrant from England, an heir disowned by his noble class who has adopted the United States as his home and has carved out a place for himself independent of family ties and fortune. The family is given the choice between that freedom and the inheritance that is theirs by right, echoing the choice Caddie herself is posed when she must decide whether to cling to her wild wanderings or forsake them to take on more adult responsibilities. The two choices and their outcomes are not necessarily the same.
The end of the story, then, isn’t just about Caddie. It’s about the entire Woodlawn family: their loves and losses, their trials and triumphs, and their unflinching fight for survival in a world of uncertainty. That uncertainty endures to this day, and that’s why Caddie Woodlawn endures as a significant piece of children’s literature.
Suggested Reading Age: 8+
Parental Notes: Caddie’s attitude is not always noble, as I mentioned, and some children might be more prone to following her prank-playing example, rather than be warned by the consequences and punishments she must endure. Another concern is the underlying threat of violence from (or against) the Indians. Scalping is often mentioned, and so might scare some children.
Availability: As I usually do when such an opportunity is available, I recommend the version illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. Additionally, there is a movie adaptation which is generally faithful to the book’s plot.