I first read "Caddie Woodlawn" in the fourth grade. Since that time, I have probably reread the book a dozen times. Last night I picked it up again, for something light to help me drift off to sleep. I love the easy writing with the fun stories of Tom, Warren, and Caddie. Their mischief is predictable and good always triumphs over evil.
I was not prepared however for the kernel of truth I found last night for the first time. My husband accuses me of reading books too fast, skipping pages, and not possibly knowing the whole story of a book. Well, we aren't all blessed with a photographic memory like his and we don't all read books as if we are headed into a brain dissection in the morning. He may have spoken a tiny sliver of truth though, because I've read "Caddie Woodlawn" many times and only last night was I pulled up short by the words on the page. Caddie's father apologizes to Caddie by way of explanation after an unfair punishment she received earlier in the day from her mother. Perhaps I've always dismissed it as trite or old-fashioned, or maybe I cast it off because I was still mad that the boys didn't get punished when it was their idea too. Regardless, the words spoke to me differently this time:
"Perhaps Mother was a little hasty today Caddie," he said. "She really loves you very much and you see she expects more of you than she would of someone she didn't care about. It's a strange thing, but somehow we expect more of girls than of boys. It is the sisters and wives and mothers, you know, Caddie, who keep the world sweet and beautiful. What a rough world it would be if there were only men and boys in it, doing things in their rough way! A woman's task is to teach them gentleness and courtesy and love and kindness. It's a big task too Caddie--harder than cutting trees or building mills or damming rivers. It takes nerve and courage and patience, but good women have those things. They have them just as much as the men who build bridges and carve roads through the wilderness. A woman's work is something fine and noble to grow up to and its just as important as a man's. But no man could ever do it so well. I don't want you to be the silly, affected person with fine clothes and manners, whom folks sometimes call a lady. No, that is not what I want for you my little girl. I want you to be a woman with a wise and understanding heart, healthy in body and honest in mind." *
Now if we strip away the obvious man's work/woman's work dynamic and we take the statement for what it is in the time period for which it is uttered, these are some profound truths. Caddie's father is rather open-minded for someone in 1860. And if we look carefully, there are some "test of time" phrases in there that I would certainly wish to say to my own daughter if I had one. Good women have nerve and courage and patience. They have understanding hearts and honest minds. Good health is not something to take lightly.
Substitute the word mother for woman. It makes sense to do so, because almost all women of that time (1860s) assumed they would play the role of wife and mother at some point. When you make the substitution, you have the same points we hear time and again in the 21st century to describe good mothers. Think of a mother's desire to keep the world as sweet and safe and beautiful and kind as it can possibly be for her children for as long as she can. Think of a mother's job in teaching kindness to her children. She teaches through her own gentleness and love. A mother teaches courtesy and love and affection by showing it in her relationship with her husband. It takes nerve and courage and patience to leave your home and the safety of what you know (even in the year 2009) to marry someone you think you love, grow a child inside your body, raise a family, and live your life in whatever time you may be living. Perhaps pioneers understood this better because the risks were greater then. Or maybe, Caddie Woodlawn's dad was just one in a million.
What matters is that it is important to teach our daughters and our sons what it means to be a woman of character and strength. We want them to recognize truth and kindness and courage and patience in people. We want our daughters to be strong, kind, faithful women who can influence, for good, people in their lives--husbands, children, friends, coworkers, other women. I want my sons to marry good, honest, hard-working, loving women who will not only cherish them, but pull them up short when they start throwing their weight around. I want my sons to recognize women of strength and character and wisdom as women who can help them make the world a better place and if they choose to marry them, make strong stable loving families.
"Caddie Woodlawn" won the Newberry Medal for children's literature and is considered to be a children's classic. I seriously doubt that when I was reading this book for the first time at 9 that I realized the influence this book would have on me some 20+ years later. If nothing else, I think rereading it again has inspired me to pick up the books my children are reading. I don't want to miss an opportunity to share with them the wonderful world of books and the lessons we can find in them together.
* Brink, Carol Ryrie. "Caddie Woodlawn." Macmillian Publishing Company, New York, NY, 1935. Quote taken from page 215-216 in the Collier Books Edition, 1970.