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Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Book Review: Caroline: Little House, Revisited by Sarah Miller

Nowadays it seems like everyone knows about my Laura Ingalls obsession, which is how it should be. And which is why, when this book was first announced, no fewer than five different people all told me about it within  roughly a week. It was all over my wheelhouse, and I had plans to get it the day it came out, but then I saw someone at BEA walking by our booth with a huge stack of it in her arms! I practically ripped her arm out of the socket, getting her attention. I was able to also tell her about Henry Holt's Laura Ingalls Wilder biography, Prairie Fires, and we talked about Pioneer Girl, and she gave me the oh-so-important news that the South Dakota Historical Society Press was there--with follow-up books to Pioneer Girl. (On a mission, I did track those down before I left the show.) And she gave me a copy of Caroline: Little House Revisited. And although I haven't read a lot of non-Macmillan print books this year, this is one I made an eager exception for.

Caroline Quiner Ingalls, also known as Ma, was in her late twenties with two kids when her husband, Charles, announced he wanted to go West. He was feeling like the land in Wisconsin was too settled up and he wanted some wide open spaces and some free land. Caroline never really asks herself if she wants to go. Given the times and the way she was raised, it never occurred to her, most likely, that her opinion on the matter was even relevant. She did get Charles to agree that when the girls were school aged, they would live someplace with a school, and with that detail buttoned down, she helped him prepare (it never occurred to me before that she must have sewn the wagon cover, but of course she must have), pack, and eventually, leave and travel west (well, more like south. They didn't go especially west.) They went to Kansas where they built a log cabin, plowed land for planting, played with their girls, had a third girl, and eventually had to leave. In the story as we've all heard it through Laura's eyes, Ma is angelic, practically perfect, with nary a sharp word or doubt, hardworking and patient. But of course, Caroline is a person, a human, and she's not practically perfect, even if she might appear so to doting daughters with the benefit of hindsight. But making her out to be a superhuman unattainable saint doesn't actually do Caroline the woman any favors, as that makes her both not human, and not interesting.

Sarah Miller has reimagined the store of the Ingalls's first trip in the wagon through the eyes of Caroline, a young mother, devoted to her husband, but distraught at leaving her family, and understandably nervous about just what Charles was getting them into. Not only would they be in a more literal middle of nowhere than we can conceive of these days but when a bad thing happened, like a log falling on Caroline's ankle, or her having to give birth, they were virtually on their own. Luckily, a neighbor's wife helped with the baby( first time they met! That's not awkward at all) and when they had the "fever 'n ague" (probably malaria), an African-American doctor (!) happened by. But any number of things could have meant life and death to their small family. They did mostly luck out in terms of health and well-being. But in the end, the settlement didn't work out.

Ms. Miller has positioned her reimagining from a more historically accurate point of view, closer to Pioneer Girl than Little House on the Prairie (for example, Carrie was born in Kansas, not in Wisconsin, both in real life and in this book, although not in Little House on the Prairie.) For serious fans, this is a must-read. I was riveted, and even now, months later, the time just before the end of the wagon trip, when they are stranded in a flooded plain for what seemed like weeks of torrential downpours, still stays with me. For more casual fans, I think it's a truly fascinating story of what those pioneer days were like for the womenfolk, who are often ignored in history books and popular culture.Just like the proverbial quote about Ginger Rogers, Caroline had to do everything Charles did, but in a corset and several layers of petticoats. (And probably backwards too.) She was a stalwart, determined young woman who was willing to give it a try, and try her hardest, to help Charles achieve his dreams. The fact that hers weren't even considered wasn't a character flaw on either side, just a sign of the times.

I got an ARC of this book for free from the publisher, HarperCollins, at BEA.

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