My third-grade teacher insisted that I read Caddie Woodlawn. I was unenthusiastic because I liked adventure stories, and a girl in a dress on the cover didn't seem promising. I started reluctantly and then couldn't put it down.
Winner of the John Newbery Award in 1936, the book by Carol Ryrie Brink is based on stories from the life of a real Caddie Woodlawn, who was Brink's grandmother. "She can still mend clocks," the author assures us, "and all her life she has been as clever with a hammer and nails as she has been in making little trousers or stirring up a strawberry shortcake."
The story is set in 1864 in the woods of western Wisconsin and spans a year. Caddie is 11, and she and the two brothers closest to her in age form a close-knit trio of adventurers. And what adventures they have! The trio makes every day an adventure as they experience rafting mishaps, wild rides, and many close calls.
Brink excelled at describing action in a clear, visual way. Her book is packed with concrete details that make readers feel the rhythm of the seasons and this way of life, with striking depictions of hunting, harvesting, making clothes, raising livestock, berry picking, and churning butter. The book also has a sly, understated sense of humor, as in this observation about Caddie's birthday: "There were too many of the young Woodlawns for anyone to make a fuss over their birthdays. It was pleasant enough to be alive, without thinking to celebrate the day on which one had begun to be so."
Caddie remains very much her own person throughout the book but learns to empathize more with others, including a pesky little sister. The story is predictable, but in a good way, in the way that seasons continue to change, and children always grow up.