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5 november 2010
Carol Ryrie Brink's Caddie Woodlawn, the 1936 Newbery Medal book, is a frontier-family saga much in the vein of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House in the Big Woods (1932). Wilder repeatedly failed to win the Medal herself, an oversight so egregious that a lifetime achievement award was eventually named after her. But in the Medal for Caddie Woodlawn one at least sees Wilder's spirit and inspiration honored by the powers that were in children's literature of the 1930s.
That Caddie Woodlawn remains readable 75 years later is testimony to Brink's fresh style and storytelling good sense. It's not the most coherent of novels, though, and its politics, while perceptibly progressive for its day, are a bit cringe-making three-quarters of a century later.
Caddie Woodlawn is not incoherent on the chapter level. But its construction is loose and plotless overall. Its author claimed for the book the ethos of "stories my grandmother told me," and the novel's construction is visibly geared toward getting all those stories between two covers.
The stories, till near the novel's end, share a common theme: young Caddie Woodlawn can do anything her brothers can do. And on the Wisconsin frontier in the 1860s, that's a lot: everything from plowing a field to riding miles in bad weather to warn Indians of a potential pre-emptive attack by racist settlers.
There's Caddie Woodlawn's progressive politics. Indians are people too. "Half-breeds," as the book somewhat gratingly calls mixed-race individuals, are people too, if people somewhat to be pitied and made the focus of gratuitious charity. Girls are as good as boys, and even ultra-feminine girls, like Caddie's spoiled cousin Annabelle, are made of tougher stuff than their male peers. And, in a kind of anti-Fauntleroy move, workers are better than aristocrats: Caddie's father gives up an English peerage to keep hacking a living out of the Midwestern forest primeval.
The Woodlawns are natural WASP aristocrats who don't need Debrett's to tell them they're noble. And they naturally befriend the marginalized people of the frontier: the Indians, the Irish. The dated qualities of the book are less in theme than in language: there's lots of "redskin" and "Paddy" thrown around. Books like Caddie Woodlawn, whose hearts are distinctly on the multi-cultural side even though their tongues aren't, make one think about the nature of abuse and euphemism. The Woodlawn kids think it's hilarious to nickname their mild-mannered Indian friend John "Bloody Tomahawk." But while stereotyping him, they deal with him one-to-one like the mensch he is. Is it better to avoid stereotypes in language, or to roll with them while seeing the people behind the labels?
Meanwhile, Caddie is encouraged by her father to grow up tomboyish, even as her elder sister, her mother, and her cousin bemoan Caddie's lack of girlish ways. Then, in a reversal at novel's end, Caddie's father announces that this girl is a woman now. Caddie must "keep the world sweet and beautiful" as "a woman with a wise and understanding heart, healthy in body and honest in mind" (244). Caddie accepts this feminizing verdict wholeheartedly – but one ought to note as well that, at this point, the novel ends. As critic Susan K. Harris famously noted, American women's writing often uses a double ending. A girl self-actualizes in a non-gendered way, and then, as a denouement, is forced, or reluctantly chooses, to enjoy being a girl. When girls remember these books later on as adult women, they often don't recall that the heroine accepted a lesser role. Caddie is a tomboy forever in the book's "real" logic.
Brink, Carol Ryrie. Caddie Woodlawn. 1935. Illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. 1973. New York: Scholastic, 1991.