Caddie Woodlawn (1935)

Just as Wilder must have noticed Jumping Off Place, Carol Ryrie Brink must have noticed Little House in the Big Woods: her own grandmother, Caroline Woodhouse, was just 14 years older than Laura Ingalls, and grew up about 15 miles away from her on a farm in Wisconsin. In 1935, three years after Big Woods, Brink published Caddie Woodlawn, based on family stories told by her grandmother.

Unlike Charles Ingalls, who mostly scraped out a living as a fur-trapper or subsistence farmer, Mr. Woodhouse was a craftsman with enough education and wealth to run a productive farm with hired hands while managing a saw-mill in the nearby town of Eau Galle. It was the saw-mill job that had brought them out from Boston, and the even closer town of Dunnville was a thriving county seat. Mrs. Woodhouse was from a prominent Boston family, and tried to instill at least a bit of society polish in her children. So the experience of the Woodlawn/Woodhouse children was very different from that of the Ingalls children. Their circumstances, though rough from their mother’s point of view, were quite stable. The worst that befell them was having to eat turkey all winter one year when their mother’s flock failed to sell.

Caddie was the third child in a brood of (at that point) seven, and a tomboy who bonded with her brothers rather than her sisters. She and her two nearest-age siblings Tom and Warren form a natural trio of rogues, both on the farm and in the wilderness beyond; but there are also many stories that focus on other relationships, such as Caddie learning clock-repair from her father, Warren sneaking out and shooting a rabbit for the new preacher’ supper, or younger sister Hettie discovering the charms of an elderly neighbor that her siblings have scorned. Because these were the stories that were remembered and re-told over the years, they are almost by definition fun and interesting.

Caddie Woodlawn ends on a note familiar from Jumping Off Place and the Little House books, propagating the mythos that pushing westward was a spiritual neccessity for the white American soul. It’s almost as if this had become obligatory for the genre. In addition, Brink’s portrayal of Native Americans is deeply problematic, particularly in the first book.

A group of Native Americans lived near the white settlement, and Caddie and her family were on friendly terms with them. (It’s difficult to know which tribe, since in addition to the peoples with traditional lands there, groups from the east had been pushed into Wisconsin even before the white settlers arrived. Historians may know the answer to this question, but I’ve not been able to find it.) When a rumor goes around the white settlement that the Native Americans are planning a massacre, Caddie’s father urges calm and talks the settlers down from a pre-emptive strike. Caddie is particular friends with one man, who the settlers know as “Indian John,” and he frequently gives her small gifts and even leaves his dog with her when it’s hurt and can’t travel.

So far so good. But the portrayal of the Native Americans themselves is absurdly cartoonish; it clearly owes more to Brink’s (and possibly Woodhouse’s) stereotypes than to actual events 70 years earlier. It is the broad-brush portrait of the noble savage: silent, unsmiling, simple-minded, remote, barely understanding English, bewildered by the encroaching white culture.

In point of fact, the Native Americans of Wisconsin were part of the Western Confederacy, formed shortly after the Revolutionary War to push back against the U.S. government. Around the time of Caddie’s story, the Pottawatomie Nation of Wisconsin sent a delegation to Washington D.C. to try to get Congress to honor its agreements. Their erudite written appeal can be read here.

Caddie Woodlawn requires heavy editing with a younger child, and substantial discussion with an older one.

The Little House Books: A Historical Slap Upside the Head

In honor of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award being renamed, I’m moving my discussion of the Little House books forward in the queue.

Original covers of the first three Little House books


There is a whole genre of semi-autobiographical books reflecting back on the era between the Civil War and WWI. (More on this in another post.) The giant of the genre, of course, is the Little House series, but they weren’t the first. The real progenitor is the now-neglected Newbery Honor book, The Jumping Off Place. Noteworthy here is that Jumping Off Place was about South Dakota homesteading, and was published in 1929. It probably suggested to Wilder that her own story might be marketable.

Some time around 1929-30, when she was in her ’60’s, Wilder started writing the story of her childhood. Her first manuscript was a non-fictional account called Pioneer Girl (now available in it’s original form, annotated by the South Dakota State Historical Society). It went through several rounds of editing, and then was reworked by Wilder and her daughter for the children’s market. The comparison between original and final versions is instructive.

First, let’s back up and look at the larger historical picture. The experience that Wilder was writing about — the white settlement of Minnesota and the Dakotas in the late 1800’s — was not really westward expansion. Already at this time, Americanized California was booming and modernizing: the University of California had been founded, San Francisco had cable cars and Golden Gate Park, and Santa Barbara was a vacation resort for the rich. The two coasts were connected by the transcontinental railroad and the telegraph. Yellowstone, 600 miles west of the Ingalls’ furthest settling place, was a National Park. So this wave of settlement was not pioneering. It was what you might call “infill,” in a region that white Americans already considered to be flyover country.

San Francisco, 1885

Further, this settlement was not a grass-roots movement driven by a spirit of adventure (though individual settlers may have bought into that romanticized vision); it was incentivized by the government. These were people who, while celebrating their independent spirit, were also singing a popular song with a chorus of “Uncle Sam is rich enough to give us all a farm.”

The settlers followed the railroads, built houses and stores where the railroad company had “platted” towns every few miles, and tried to farm — often unsuccessfully, because they didn’t understand the ecosystem — on land that the government had maneuvered them onto. It should have been obvious that this was not succeeding: towns that were only ten or fifteen years old were seen as worn out. But it took another century for the idea to get serious traction, that this artificial, subsidized “pioneering” was a long-term failure (

Railroad construction, Dakota Territory, late 1800’s

In this context, we can consider the ways that Wilder’s books stray from the truth. These stories were not merely fictionalized in a benign sense (for example, the recurring characters of Mr. Edwards and Nellie Olsen were fabricated for narrative continuity, which is perfectly acceptable literary license), but seriously distorted what the Ingalls’ life was like.

Chief Hard Rope, Osage chief at that time of the Ingalls’ illegal residency

To begin with a rather important falsehood, LAURA INGALLS NEVER LIVED IN THE BIG WOODS. The Ingalls’ property was several miles south in more settled territory, quite close to the the nearest town and less than a mile from a school, which Laura and Mary attended. (Successive editors moved the family closer and closer to the woods, until the final version placed them actually in it.) In fact, Laura spent virtually all of her childhood in towns or on their outskirts, notably Walnut Grove MN, Burr Oak IA, and De Smet SD. The two exceptions were the Ingalls family joining a rush of illegal squatting on the Osage Diminished Indian Reserve in Kansas when Laura was a toddler (Little House on the Prairie); and a half-year spent at railroad construction sites in the Dakota Territory (By the Shores of Silver Lake). This half-year consisted first of Charles Ingalls working an office job for the railroad company, and then the family wintering in a company building at the future location of De Smet, eating heartily from abandoned(?) company provisions, until other settlers arrived in the spring.

The real life Charles and Caroline Ingalls

But while the books downplay the settlers’ real dependence on society, they also downplay how destabilizing it was to be removed from the larger culture. These settler towns were communities where the justice of the peace might have only a grade-school education; the minister might be an embezzler; the principal of the high school might be a 16-year-old boy; and the doctor might be supplying whiskey to a town full of recovering alcoholics. All these and more occur in Wilder’s original manuscript, along with domestic abuse, public violence, serial killers, vigilante justice, mental illness, poverty, and despair. Even Pa Ingalls showed a dishonest streak. (Incidentally, almost none of Laura’s idolization of Pa comes through in the original manuscript. Again and again, help, companionship, and words of wisdom that actually came from various women, were reassigned to Pa in the finished books. Hat-tip to the editors of Pioneer Girl for drawing my attention to this point.)