Thursday, September 7, 2017

Caroline: Little House, Revisited by Sarah Miller

For those of us who still keep our childhood copies of the Little House books on our bookshelves, this soon to be published novel about Caroline Ingalls is like a long lost friend returning for a brief visit.  

"Ma", as we all know and love her, was the gentle, firm, yet loving mother to Mary, Laura, Carrie, and Grace.  In many ways she has always been a bit one dimensional; seen through the eyes of her daughter, Laura, we only see Ma as the wise mother, always deferring to her husband. Well, hold your hat, because we see Ma as Caroline, pioneer woman, loving mother, and lover (yes, I said lover) in this retelling of Little House on the Prairie. Wonder where Laura got her moxie? Yes, some of it from her father, but pretty much 90% from her mother. 

The novel begins in Wisconsin, as Charles' wanderlust leads him and his family to pack their worldly goods into a wagon and head to Kansas.  Caroline is newly pregnant with Carrie, and doesn't want to leave everything and everyone she holds dear.  Yet, she must follow her husband; she knows Charles will be unhappy if he stays in an increasingly crowded Big Woods.  The scene where the Ingalls family say farewell to family and their beloved little cabin is really heartbreaking.  Caroline holds it together, but just barely.  Full of fear of the unknown, yet excitement to be starting new in Kansas, she is strong and mindful of the examples she must set for her two young daughters, who see everything.  

Charles' and Caroline's journey to Kansas in modern times would be so many hours in one day if they traveled by car.  But for them, it took weeks.  Dangerous creek crossings, horrible storms, loneliness, food rations and the dangers of one family traveling alone keep the tension up.  Caroline's growing fears for her unborn child set her on edge: when will the baby move; how will she give birth by herself out on the prairie? 

Caroline and Charles' relationship is one of mutual love and respect.  They know each other so well that just a look or a certain phrase signals how each other feels.  It's clear they adore each other, and support each other in every way.  Yes, I have to admit my 10 year old self cringed a bit reading the few love scenes, but they were appropriate and tasteful, and brought home again that Charles and Caroline are not just Pa and Ma, but two people who have come together to create a family and a future together. If you have ever shared hopes and dreams with a partner, you will completely understand this marriage.  

Once the Ingalls family arrives in Kansas, they quickly work to build a cabin and settle in before winter.  We meet Mr. Edwards, and Mrs. Scott, a neighbor who meets Caroline on the day she arrives to help deliver Carrie.  Caroline longs for her family during labor, but realizes the gift of Mrs. Scott.  Such an intimate time to meet someone for the first time, but a bond develops between the two women because of where they are--women need to stick together.  It reinforces the hardships pioneer women endured settling the American West.  Brave, brave women.  Hardworking women.  Women who endured so much sorrow, but kept on; so much to admire as I sit sipping my tea in my comfortable home.  I've got it good, because they did all the hard work.  

This novel follows Little House on the Prairie fairly closely, but told instead from the perspective of an adult woman. While the story may have been familiar, it was refreshingly different from Caroline's point of view.  Perhaps reading this as an adult with some life experience also gave it some weight.  In any case, this was a welcome return to childhood, with a bit of poignancy attached to it.  It was also a chance to get to know Caroline: a strong woman who constantly thought about how she could understand and adapt to her changing world. She faced fear and instead of bowing to it, she met it head on with courage.

Rating:  5/6 for a well written return to the Little House books.  The writing immediately reminded me of Laura Ingalls Wilder's writing style; I expect fans will embrace this novel and add it to their collections.  Since it does focus heavily on Charles and Caroline (two young married folks who, quite frankly, have a healthy lust for each other), I would recommend reading it first before passing it onto young readers.  It also shows racial tensions between white and Indians, and the prejudices and misinformation that were common at the time.  

Available September 19th, 2017 in the United States in hardcover, large print, ebook, and audio.

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