Laurinda’s Rating: 4.5/5
In the interest of full disclosure, Caddie Woodlawn is the first Newbery book that I had read before. I loved it as a child, but honestly couldn’t remember the plot. The elements that (likely) appealed to me as a kid: Caddie’s curly red hair, which I share, and all her adventures. What kept me reading as an adult: the adventures and the nuanced description of Caddie’s development. Although it is a coming of age tale, it’s far more subtle than most of its contemporaries.
Caddie Woodlawn is a historical fiction story set in northern Wisconsin around the time of the Civil War. While the setting is relevant, the main focus of the book is Caddie’s pure joy at being alive. She is an active, adventurous girl who enjoys playing with her brothers far more than helping with “proper” women’s work like cooking and preserving. Early in the book, Caddie laments all the buttons on her dresses, as it makes it harder to dress after wading across the river to visit an Indian camp. Despite tension from the some of the other families, Caddie and her father are good friends with local Indian tribes. Indian John even entrusts Caddie with his father’s scalp belt and his own dog when he is unable to take them with him. Caddie repays the favour by racing through the woods on a horse to warn the tribe when local settlers contemplate preemptive strikes after someone starts rumours of Indian massacres. The book also contains many other shenanigans by Caddie, Tom, and Warren. They nearly “collect” the skin of a still-living rattlesnake, charge admission for views of Indian John’s scalp belt, and fool visiting Cousin Annabelle into “salting the sheep”. However, particularly as Caddie begins to grow up, she exhibits real empathy for those around her. When half-Indian schoolmates are sad after their mother returns to her tribe (ok, her husband casts her off), Caddie takes them to the local stores and spends the entire silver dollar she carefully hoarded on items to make them happy. Eventually, although Caddie still enjoys outdoor adventures, she decides to also master pursuits like quilting and cooking. The author softens the “tomboy” to “lady” transition by having the brothers also decide they want to quilt and cook too.
Other than Caddie herself, Caddie’s father is my favorite character. When the family first moved to Wisconsin from Boston, he insisted that sickly Caddie be allowed to run free outside with her brothers, a choice which restored her to health. Despite some societal pressure, he continued to support Caddie’s enthusiasm for the outdoors; he never forced her to be what she wasn’t and nurtured talents like her clock repair skills. He also stuck with what he himself believed, whether it was his friendship with the local Indian tribes or his conviction that money he earned was better than the inheritance that came to him unlooked for.
This is, by far, my favorite Newbery book thus far. The story is engaging and the narrative balanced between adventures and quieter moments. Caddie really grows up over the course of the book, but it is a self-guided journey composed of a series of small events rather than one pivotal moment. To me, this read as more authentic than some very dramatic growing up stories, although this likely reflects my own developmental process and the lack of major cataclysms in it. Absolutely read this book and share it with any children (especially girls) in your life.