Caroline: Little House Revisited
I must confess that when I read the Little House books, Ma Ingalls was never my favorite character. Her hackles-raised reaction at the mention of Native Americans didn’t sit well with me, and she always seemed a bit stiff and humorless compared to Pa. But I did enjoy the books, so when I saw there was a retelling of Little House on the Prairie, told from her perspective, I checked it out and am glad I did. Caroline: Little House Revisited was a vivid and absorbing read.
The story begins with Caroline Ingalls learning that her husband Charles has managed to sell their property in Wisconsin, because he dreams of traveling to the prairies of Kansas. And the sooner they leave, the sooner they’ll own their own land in Kansas. Caroline is pregnant and has two small children to take care of, but she can see how invested Charles is in this, emotionally as well as financially. So even though it’s wrenching to leave her parents and siblings, and even though she has no idea what life in Kansas will be like – or even whether there’ll be a woman there who can help her with the birth – she makes the best of it.
This is not a tightly plotted book, and if you’ve read Little House on the Prairie, you already know what happens – the river crossing, building a log cabin, Mr. Edwards’ encounter with Santa Claus and so on. What makes a difference, though, is seeing it all from the perspective of a woman who cooks, cleans, mends, helps her husband, soothes and cares for two children under the age of six, and struggles to stay consistently cheerful, practical, and alert as they travel for day after day through unfamiliar land. Pa might have hitched his wagon to a star, but Ma was the one who stitched the wagon-cover and made sure they all had something to eat.
So I found myself liking her more, and even her prim and proper-ness was understandable. After leaving Wisconsin, she has no extended family, no friends, and no community at all. It’s just her, her husband and daughters under an endless sweep of sky. Of course she’s going to hold on all the harder to what she finds familiar and safe, whether that’s making sure Mary only wears blue hair ribbons or telling Laura not to point.
Caroline is a very introspective person, and this book brings that aspect of her to life.
She laid the drying clothes out like paper dolls on the grass… 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.
Most of the time this works very well, but occasionally it verged on navel-gazing. I felt the author tried to imbue too many events with an emotional charge or a philosophical reflection, and this made the book feel longer and slow-paced. I was also slightly disappointed that the story ends with the family having to leave Kansas, because my favorite book in the series was On the Banks of Plum Creek, and I would have loved to read that from Caroline’s perspective.
Ms. Miller has clearly done a great deal of research, which results in a well-realized and vividly depicted world. Linseed oil used for waterproofing, apple cider vinegar dabbed on mosquito bites to stop itching, the taste of Indian breadroot. Reading this was an incredibly immersive experience, though occasionally this wasn’t a good thing. I didn’t want or enjoy the details of the family’s bathroom arrangements. And at another point, when prolonged heavy rain turns the ground to a mud slick, the family isn’t able to travel. The story captures the cabin-fever experience of being stuck in a wagon for days, not to mention having to scrape mossy mold off bacon thanks to the dampness, but they sit there shivering in the wagon for thirty pages.
Thirty pages. Never mind the Ingalls, I felt a little stir-crazy myself.
On the whole, though, this novel earns a strong recommendation. I enjoyed reading about Caroline’s relationship with Charles, her daily work, and the descriptions of food that made my mouth water. Not to mention all the wonder and danger of the land she hopes will be their new home. Caroline: Little House, Revisited should appeal to Little House fans, and even if you’re not, give this book a try. For the most part, I think you’ll like it.