I have been looking forward to reading Caddie Woodlawn ever since I started the Newbery Challenge almost three years ago. It was a favorite of mine growing up, and I dangled Carol Ryrie Brink’s book in front of me like a carrot to motivate myself through some of the less than stellar Newbery winners of the twenties and thirties. But when I finally reached 1936 on the Newbery list, I found myself unwilling to start. What if I started reading only to find a cherished book of my childhood just doesn’t measure up anymore?
Fortunately, I enjoyed revisiting Caddie, albeit for different reasons than my childhood self. Caddie Woodlawn, sandwiched between two brothers in a family of seven children, is as spirited a tomboy as I remember. When her family moved from Boston to western Wisconsin, her father struck a bargain with her mother: Mom can have her way bringing up all the other kiddies, but let Caddie run free for the sake of her health. It works, and Caddie is spared from womanly duties to go on all sorts of adventures. Along the way and without shoving this theme down our throats, Caddie learns that people can be much more than they first appear, whether it’s the bully with no regard for education that saves the schoolhouse from a brush fire; supercilious cousin Annabelle (she of the eight and eighty buttons) who’s a lot more resilient to Caddie, Tom, and Warren’s merciless pranks than they’d imagined; delicate fainting Kate who’s bold enough to touch the gruesome scalps on Indian Joe’s belt; Caddie’s father, who may just be English nobility; even Caddie, a tomboy who has the makings of a real lady.
Before you think Eliza Dolittle, consider Mr. Woodlawn’s speech to Caddie, when he consoles her for being singled out for punishment after pranking cousin Annabelle:
[Mother] really loves you very much, and you see, she expects more of you than she would of someone she didn’t care about. It is the sisters and wives and mothers, you know, Caddie, who keep the world sweet and beautiful. A woman’s task is to teach [men] gentleness and courtesy and love and kindness. It’s a big task, too, Caddie–harder than cutting trees or building mills or damming rivers. It takes nerve and courage and patience, but good women have those things. . . . A woman’s work is something fine and noble to grow up to, and it is just as important as a man’s. But no man could ever do it so well. I don’t want you to be the silly, affected person with fine clothes and manners whom folks sometimes call a lady. . . . I want you to be a woman with a wise and understanding heart, healthy in body and honest in mind.
While Caddie is a definitely product of its time, some of this is actually pretty forward thinking advice. As a kid, I didn’t think about things like the author’s intended audience, but for young girls in 1935 reading Caddie’s story, they must have gotten such a sense of validation from this book.