Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink. Macmillan, 1935. Currently available.
Genre: Middle Grade Historical Fiction
Face Value: There are hundreds of variations on the Caddie Woodlawn cover out there, but I am particularly fond of the cover on my copy. Caddie is joyously skating on a frozen pond, her glorious red hair flying loose behind her. She looks independent and strong and like someone who I would want to be my friend.
Does it break the slate? Tough call. Caddie is, apart from her surroundings, a Slatebreaking individual. She challenges gender norms and refuses to be boxed in by the expectations of her friends and family. However, this book makes so many grievous offenses regarding ethnicity and cultural bias that it destroys its Slatebreaking credentials.
Who would we give it to? No one, actually. More on that later.
Review: What happens when you revisit a beloved book from your childhood and realize that it is goes against your adult ideologies and values? I had this alarming experience when I re-read Caddie Woodlawn for Frontier Week here at Slatebreakers. I remembered Caddie as a bold, inspiring Wisconsin girl. I was utterly dismayed to read this book again in 2012 and experience discomfort, frustration, and even disgust at the attitude toward the Native American of Northwest Wisconsin that is very apparent throughout the book.
Author Carol Ryrie Brink based the fictional Caddie Woodlawn upon a real Caddie Woodlawn, Brink’s grandmother. The book is inspired by Woodlawn’s tales of her childhood in Wisconsin. The Woodlawn family resides in Dunnville, a tiny town. Caddie is the Woodlawn sibling who tends to hang with her brothers and engage in the wild and energetic pursuits typical of young boys. Mama Woodlawn is upset that Caddie does not act like a “civilized young lady,” but Caddie’s father encourages her independence and continues to allow her to hang out with the boys.
I feel so conflicted about this book because Caddie is inspiring as a smart, independent girl character and could be totally amazing if the story surrounding her were different. Here is one of my favorite quotes that captures Caddie’s refusal to accept gender norms:
“I’m not really so much of a tomboy as they think. Perhaps I shall wear hoops some day, but only when I get good and ready.”
Her good-natured attitude is admirable throughout the book. Although she may feel self-conscious at times when her mother and sisters repeatedly criticize her active and unrestricted lifestyle, she always bounces back and makes her own decisions.
Where the book goes sour, however, is in its description of the Woodlawn family’s attitude toward their Native American neighbors. John Woodlawn, Caddie’s dad, is the “progressive” settler who is willing to befriend and negotiate with the Native Americans. In a standoff between the tribe and local settlers, John Woodlawn is the man who keeps a cool head and is willing to make peace. What peeved me about this whole thing was that the Woodlawns were glorified as a kind and just family who opposed slavery and made friends with Native Americans, but still perceived these groups as “other.” There was no effort to get to know the Native Americans in any meaningful way. It was always something along the lines of, “We are so proud of ourselves for being such gracious and wonderful white folks who interact with those people.”
This attitude worsens when Caddie sees that the mixed-race children at her school (the book uses the cringingly awful term “half breed”) are upset because their mother left home, she decides that she is going to help them. How will she help them? By spending money on them, of course! Caddie takes her previous saved up silver dollar and spends it on candy, combs, and handkerchiefs for these children. And of course these trinkets make the children so happy that the sad thoughts of their mother’s departure are completely wiped away! Yeah, right, Caddie. Your penny candy fixed all of their problems. The “white savior” theme is especially prevalent in this portion of the story, and I couldn’t stomach it. In fact, I felt very upset over the fact that I thought this was such a moving story as a child.
Here’s the thing about Caddie Woodlawn: it captures the spirit of a certain time and place within U.S. American history. It is written in an engaging style that is appealing to young readers. However, I feel strongly that this book should not be glibly read for fun without any additional conversation or “troubling” by parents, teachers, librarians, and other reading companions. Kids reading Caddie Woodlawn should think critically about the attitudes of the Woodlawn family and their fellow settlers. Why are those attitudes problematic? In what ways do those attitudes persist in our contemporary culture? I said before that I would not recommend Caddie Woodlawn to anyone, which may be a bit harsh. But I know that there are other books out there that explore a similar time and place within history and can present a more balanced view of the interaction between settlers and Native Americans.
Readers, I would love to read your responses, as I am still deeply conflicted about this book. What would you do if your student or child were reading Caddie Woodlawn independently? Is it your responsibility as an adult in that child’s reading life to intervene and have a conversation, or do you let the kid puzzle our their own perception of the book? Is there a point when we become overly sensitive and start censoring the past? Should that be avoided? Chime in. I want to know what you think.
Reviewed from a copy from the Wisconsin Historical Museum.