Saturday, 2 August 2008

Caddie Woodlawn and the Dangers of Unexamined Nostalgia

I've been meaning to write a review about the Newbery award-winner for 1936, Caddie Woodlawn, but for some reason I find myself with little to say about the book. My copy of Caddie has lain on my desk for a number of months now, and occasionally I would pick it up and try to begin writing, but never was able to get started.

I read and enjoyed this book as a child without, if I remember correctly, it ever becoming a favourite. I find it still readable, but somehow not satisfying. It seems like such a generic, superficial book somehow. Tomboyish girl gets into episodic adventures with her brothers, chafes against the restrictive social expectations put upon a girl in 1864, and gradually learns to embrace her own, more palatable definition of femininity. Along the way all the sturdiest of virtues are espoused: honesty, courage, kindness, initiative, loyalty, cheerfulness, industry, generosity, and of course the inevitable American boosterism that seems to have been de rigueur for at least the early Newbery books.

That the book should seem so two-dimensional is surprising and disappointing given that the book is based upon Carol Ryrie Brink's grandmother's recollections of her Wisconsin pioneer childhood in the 1860s, with some additions and inventions. In the author's note at the beginning of the book, Ryrie Brink tells us the real Caddie was still alive at the time of its writing and provided details and verification, and further that her grandmother was pleased with the book and thought it portrayed her family members exactly as they were. I so hate to take a stance against the real Caddie's view of her childhood (what makes me think I know better than someone who was there?) but I just can't buy it. Were things ever this simple and straightforward for anyone at any time?

That's not to say this book is as irritatingly and absurdly idyllic as the 1939 Newbery medalist, Thimble Summer. The setting seems reasonably authentic. There are references to ample but monotonous food, limited reading materials, plain clothing, hard work, the dangers of prairie fires and rattlesnakes, and explanations of cultural differences, such as how birthdays weren't celebrated in the way that contemporary children would expect. But Ryrie Brink determinedly presents only a cheerful, tidy, picture of her grandmother's childhood, and seemingly has no interest in cracking the fond, nostalgic coating her grandmother's memories probably acquired over the years of her long life in order to see what lay beneath.

For instance, there's Caddie's effort to help some of her schoolmates, the Hankinson children. Mr. Hankinson, a white pioneer, had married an Indian woman due to the dearth of eligible white women in the early days of the area's settlement. Some years and three children later, Mr. Hankinson's shame of his wife grew to the point where he ordered her to depart from the area when the members of her native community did, leaving their three devastated little boys behind with him. Caddie feels she must help Sammie, Gus and Pete, and she takes them down to the general store, where she spends an entire, long-hoarded silver dollar on candy, tops, combs and handkerchiefs for the boys. It's a heartbreaking story, and a kind, generous gesture on Caddie's part, but there is simply no recognition that no amount of candy or trinkets can possibly compensate those three little boys for the loss of their loving mother. Caddie announces triumphantly that she has driven “that awful lonesome look out of their eyes”, and the Hankinson boys are simply never mentioned again, as though they are a problem neatly resolved and dismissed.

The portrayal of the native people and their relations with the settlers is an area Ryrie Brink chose to present in a flat and stereotypically racist way, relying on her grandmother's stories and the stock Indian renderings of her own day. The three Hankinson boys are described as “half-savage”. The native Americans in the book speak the pidgin English straight out of the early Westerns. Caddie's friend among the Indians (of course there's no identification of the specific tribe these native people belong to), “Indian John”, says to Caddie, “John he go 'way. John's people go 'way, John's dog no can walk. John go far, far. Him dog no can go far. You keep?”. I half-expected him to drop a “Kemo Sabe” somewhere in there. To be fair, the Irish characters in the book seem to begin most sentences by exclaiming, “Faith!” and are invariably the hired help. Ryrie Brink's characterizations may stem less from racist attitudes than from lazy, unthinking and unresearched writing.

There is a "massacre scare" in Caddie Woodlawn and any tensions between the white settlers and native people are explained away as being entirely the fault of some ignorant and fearful settlers. Of course there's no mention of the governmental mistreatment of the native people or the westward wave of settlers who commandeered the land and left the natives with no place to live. In Caddie's world, good, tolerant white people and gentle, peace-loving Indians can work the matter out between them. The situation is resolved by Caddie's courage, a handshake between Indian John and Mr. Woodlawn... and the native people's convenient decampment for an unspecified destination.

I'm in no way knowledgeable about native American culture or historical perspectives and so cannot really provide a proper analysis of the ways Caddie Woodlawn. Debbie Reese, of the web site American Indians in Children's Literature, has some interesting comments about the portrayal of the native Americans in the book. It seems she has been unable to substantiate the existence of any actual "scalp belts" among the American Indians, so the passages involving "Indian John's" giving his scalp belt into Caddie's keeping and the Woodlawn children's showing of it to the neighbourhood children would all have been invented by Ryrie Brink.

Then there's the handling of Mr. Woodlawn's account of his deprived English childhood. Caddie's father tells the children, "Whatever happens I want you to think of yourselves as young Americans, and I want you to be proud of that. It is difficult to tell you about England, because there all men are not free to pursue their own lives in their own ways. Some men live like princes, while other men must beg for the very crusts that keep them alive." I'm at a loss to understand how Mr. Woodlawn could possibly have thought men were any freer in America than in England, or how he could consider there were no comparable extremes in the standard of living among U.S. citizens, but its accepted as fact by the young Woodlawns and, apparently, by Ryrie Brink.

When I first found out that there was a sequel to Caddie Woodlawn entitled Magical Melons, I promptly borrowed it from the Toronto Public Library. But it was not what I would have considered a "sequel" — a book that followed Caddie through adolescence and possibly to young adulthood — but rather further episodes from the same period of Caddie's life. In a way, Ryrie Brink may never have got beyond being the credulous child listening to stories at her grandmother's knee. My guess is that she has not researched or explored her subject matter in any substantial or meaningful way, but instead accepted her grandmother's anecdotes at face value and contented herself with shaping the stories into fiction by adding material pulled from the prevailing beliefs and attitudes of the early twentieth century. And if this were the case, she could not allow Caddie to grow beyond the age of eleven either, because her work would never have the substance to satisfy older readers.

The (Indiana, U.S.) Allen County Public Library site has a listing of Newbery winners, which they have very sensibly ranked in order of how enjoyable they are to read. They ranked Caddie Woodlawn in fifty-ninth place (out of 87) and added the comment, "The 'adventures' of a pioneer girl that leaves modern-day readers wondering 'so?'"

Had I not felt compelled to expand my opinion of Caddie until it reached a word count that would qualify it to be considered a review, I might have said something similar and left it at that.


Anonymous said...

Hooray, more Orange Swan review!
I remember reading this as a kid and feeling sort of unsatisfied as well.
Like the part at the end where they all learn quilting. Ugh.

--exceptinsects of metafilter

Anonymous said...

I realize that this book was not intended to be a biography but it was based on a grandmother's tales which would place it somewhere within the "oral history" genre. And while I readily agree that it doesn't accurately portray a comprehensive or thoroughly researched picture of history, I do have to wonder if it may reflect one person's perspective. I do think it is possible for people to live through a momentous time in history and yet be somewhat oblivious. Given that the grandmother thought it accurately portrayed her memories,I'd suggest the author is being true to her source. This is clearly not a Gabaldon book that is researched to a Ph'd thesis level but by definition, oral history is often myopic.