Friday, November 17, 2017

Caroline: Little House, Revisited by Sarah Miller

Reviewed by Kristin

For every person who grew up loving the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Sarah Miller has drawn together the threads of fiction and the actual historical records of the Ingalls family as they journeyed from Wisconsin to Kansas, thus creating a beautiful new work from mother Caroline’s point of view.

Caroline loved being settled in Pepin, Wisconsin amidst family and friends but she knew that her adventure loving husband, Charles, always looked westward.  Indeed, as Charles announced that he had an offer to buy their Wisconsin homestead and was making plans to stake a claim in Kansas, Caroline began obediently sewing a canvas wagon cover, packing their most precious belongings into a trunk, and preparing for the long journey.

The author’s language is beautiful—whether describing the rolling prairies, her daughters’ blue eyes, or Charles’ unruly hair, Caroline seems to have an eye for the loveliness of the world.  Even on a day when the travelers finally stop long enough for Caroline to wash clothes, she delights in the reflection of the water and in the feeling of accomplishment as her scrubbing releases dirt from the fabrics.  Caroline is doing necessary and even difficult work, but she understands her place in the world.  To illustrate, an excerpt:

     “She laid the drying clothes out like paper dolls on the grass.  Caroline stood back, thoughtfully taking in their colors and shapes: Charles in brown and green, herself and Mary in shades of blue, and Laura’s little sprigged calico in just the bold shade of red Caroline longed to wear.  Together all of them gently bent the grass, so that Caroline saw the soft imprint of her family on the land.” 

Just as modern readers have to look back at the Little House books through the lens of historical times, I had to maintain that same mindset as I read this book.  Caroline is extremely scared of the Indians, to the point of seeing them as sub-human.  While modern readers may find those racist attitudes repugnant, the sentiments are historically accurate-- this was all the people of that time had been taught.

Little bits are picked up from Laura’s fiction and retold from Caroline’s point of view.  Crossing the creek with mustangs Pet, Patty and bulldog Jack is just as much of a frightful adventure as recounted by young Laura.  The delight of Mr. Edwards bringing Christmas gifts from Santa is felt perhaps even more by Caroline, than by Mary and Laura.  The arrival of baby Carrie is described in much more detail by the laboring mother, but also includes the moment when Mary and Laura return with Charles after a day visiting the vacant Indian camp to see that a new sister has increased their family.

Altogether, I found this book delightful.  A frontier story which millions have known, but told from another perspective makes this a mature version of one piece of Wilder’s Little House series.  I appreciated the author’s note that discusses some of the discrepancies in the original Little House series, and how she chose to maintain some of those stories which are contradicted by historical record, and to change others to more accurately reflect the Ingalls’ family adventures.  I recommend this novel which so deftly combines historical background and the imagined inner life of a frontier woman.

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