Caddie, the main character, is a strong, likable heroine. She has a close and loving relationship with her family, she enjoys being outdoors in the rivers and fields of her western Wisconsin home, and she is clever, passionate and generous. And Caddie has a dog (actually, a couple of dogs are featured in CW), and I'm a sucker for dog and horse stories. Furthermore, I like historical fiction, and I think CW really captures life on a frontier farm, in language that seems relatively fresh and modern, unlike some of the other older Newbery winners. And I thought Caddie's adventures were interesting, even the ones that weren't particularly hair-raising.
However, several things bothered me in Caddie Woodlawn. It was like eating a really fine salad and finding a slug in it. Or maybe biting down hard on a cherry pit in this salad (and then finding your filling in your hand along with the pit).
Minor issues first: Why the heck did Mrs. Woodlawn let her feckless brother take Nero? What was she thinking, giving away the family pet like that, and to Uncle Edmund of all people?
If a boy's lifestyle was so much healthier than a girl's, why didn't Mr. Woodlawn let Caddie's younger sisters run wild "instead of making samplers and dipping candles" (p. 15), too? Poor Hetty, it's a wonder that she wasn't more of a brat than she already was. It was interesting, though, that women's work (which was by no means exclusively indoors in the 19th century) was associated with weakness and fragile health, while men and their outdoor tasks, like plowing, were identified with strength and well-being.
There's a relatively well-known academic paper (described in this Salon article on the American Girl dolls) by Anne Scott McLeod that describes the "Caddie Woodlawn syndrome" - in which girls who had a fair amount of freedom as children are finally required to assume the responsibilities of adult womanhood, donning the restricting clothing of the time along with adult women's more sedate behavior and work ethics. "How about it, Caddie, have we run with the colts long enough?" says Caddie's father (p. 245) - to which I couldn't help answering "No! Or at least not until the colts are ready to settle down, too".
But the racism was the real sticking point (see some earlier debate about race in CW here and here). It's not always overt, which perhaps makes it more insidious, but CW contains all of the most common offenses when it comes to stereotyping American Indians, and I was more than a little shocked that there was so little commentary about this online.
No particular tribal or ethnic group is ever identified in Caddie Woodlawn - it's just generic Indians, as if a person from one time and place and very, very different culture could be easily swapped out for another (imagine if there were no English and French people, but only Europeans!). One character actually mentions that Indian John (the only Indian that is ever named or described in CW, apart from the Hankinson kids and their mother) isn't from the same tribe that "killed a thousand white people" near New Ulm, Minnesota a few years before (p. 118), but we never find out who "Indian John's people" actually are.
Indian John is not so much an individual but a cardboard figure representing "the Indian brave", complete with buckskin, horse, dog, and scalp belt. He doesn't actually say "Ugh", but he is a stoic and mysterious figure, and little else. Does he have a family? What does he really think of Caddie and her brothers?
Anyway, Indian John and the other Indians are curiously clueless, until they are rescued by the courageous young Caddie. They are also clearly doomed, not so much as individuals or as families, but as symbolic remnants of the American past, like the passenger pigeons described in Chapter 3. It is rather fitting that CW concludes with Caddie facing west, "a pioneer and an American," with manifest destiny clear in the sunset.
One of the passages that some people probably see as an endearing example of Caddie's generosity made me the most uncomfortable, because of the children involved. It's a description that isn't overtly racist (except for the use of the word savage), but the feeling of condescension is hard to miss :
Caddie examined her protégés with maternal eyes. Certainly their noses needed attention as well as their hair.
"I guess handkerchiefs had better come next," she said thoughtfully. "thirty cents' worth of nice, cheerful, red handkerchiefs, if you please."
Mr. Adams had the very thing, large enough to meet any emergency, and of a fine turkey red. Caddie was satisfied, and the little Hankinsons were speechless with delight. The red was like music to their half-savage eyes. They waved the handkerchiefs in the air. They capered about and jostled each other and laughed aloud as Caddie had never heard them do before.
"Now you can go home," said Caddie, giving each of them a friendly pat, "and have a good time, and mind you remember to have clean noses and tidy hair on Monday when you come to school."To me, this passage conveys the idea that these kids are dirty, wild, thoughtless, uncared-for, and easily satisfied with some colorful trinkets. I couldn't help thinking that candy, combs, and handkerchiefs were small compensation for the loss of a mother - although of course Caddie wasn't to blame for the community hysteria that drove the local Indian families away. I also wondered how any kid that was the recipient of such charity would feel - I imagine it would be excruciating, no matter how poor you were.
Dazed with good fortune, they tumbled out of the store, whooping with joy and entirely forgetting (if they ever knew) that thanks were in order. (p. 163-4)
Now, these shortcomings can be (and often are) excused as a product of the time - after all, the stories were told to the author by her grandmother, Caddie Woodhouse, who grew up in Dunn Co., Wisconsin in the mid-1800's. And author Carol Ryrie Brink herself was born in 1895 and published CW in 1935, which was not an era well-known for political correctness.
But when I Googled "teacher resources" and "Caddie Woodlawn", I didn't find that the portrayal of Native Americans in CW was even raised as an issue, unless I really dug a lot. It certainly didn't turn up as a discussion question or "point to consider" on any of teacher guides I found (and I plowed through at least ten pages of Google hits). In fact, "savage" was matter of factly listed on the vocabulary lists (would other racial epithets be so casually listed?), and the only question about Indians at all was this one: "How did the encroachment of the settlers on American lands create conflict?", from one relatively detailed list of discussion questions.
Despite the fact that CW is touted as part of a history lesson, and many historical activities are suggested to accompany its classroom use, I didn't uncover any resources that linked Caddie's story to actual (real and important) historical events. In fact, in several places I found that Caddie's story is actually incorrectly described, in a manner that is completely opposite of what happened in CW: "the story of a fun-loving tomboy who saves her family from an Indian massacre". In Brink's story, Caddie saves the Indians from being killed by fearful settlers. Probably this mistake has been re-copied countless places on the internet, but really, you have to ask why it was made in the first place. Perhaps because "Indian massacre" stories are such a staple of American story-telling?
Anyway, I did some research of my own, and learned that the "Indian massacre" near New Ulm, Minnesota was part of the U.S.-Dakota Conflict of 1862 (aka Sioux Uprising or Dakota War of 1862). Now this is was an important conflict, where hundreds of innocents and soldiers on both sides were killed, and it is something that had huge historical ramifications for Minnesota and Wisconsin and several different Native peoples (including different Chippewa or Ojibway or Anishinabeg peoples of Minnesota and Wisconsin, which would be likely candidates for "Indian John's people").
It really would be worthwhile to talk about this (or the Civil War, or Methodist circuit riders, or class in the U.S. vs. Great Britain) in the context of Caddie Woodlawn. And it would be really worthwhile to examine how race is portrayed in CW with an older elementary school class, not because it's "politically correct", or because it's fun to tear down a classic of children's literature, but because Caddie provides the perfect opportunity to examine our casual assumptions about race and how its descriptions in our children's stories support (or explode) our own stereotypes.