Friday, September 15, 2017

Caroline: Little House, Revisited by Sarah Miller

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Edelweiss
Read: September 13, 2017

In this novel authorized by the Little House estate, Sarah Miller vividly recreates the beauty, hardship, and joys of the frontier in a dazzling work of historical fiction, a captivating story that illuminates one courageous, resilient, and loving pioneer woman as never before—Caroline Ingalls, "Ma" in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s beloved Little House books. In the frigid days of February, 1870, Caroline Ingalls and her family leave the familiar comforts of the Big Woods of Wisconsin and the warm bosom of her family, for a new life in Kansas Indian Territory. Packing what they can carry in their wagon, Caroline, her husband Charles, and their little girls, Mary and Laura, head west to settle in a beautiful, unpredictable land full of promise and peril. The pioneer life is a hard one, especially for a pregnant woman with no friends or kin to turn to for comfort or help. The burden of work must be shouldered alone, sickness tended without the aid of doctors, and babies birthed without the accustomed hands of mothers or sisters. But Caroline’s new world is also full of tender joys. In adapting to this strange new place and transforming a rough log house built by Charles’ hands into a home, Caroline must draw on untapped wells of strength she does not know she possesses. For more than eighty years, generations of readers have been enchanted by the adventures of the American frontier’s most famous child, Laura Ingalls Wilder, in the Little House books. Now, that familiar story is retold in this captivating tale of family, fidelity, hardship, love, and survival that vividly reimagines our past.


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I have vivid memories of my first experience with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. I was
seven, maybe eight, and my cousin and I were taking turns reading aloud from Little House in the Big Woods. I’d come to a line about Pa’s ax, but my tongue wouldn’t cooperate and we’ve made jokes about Pa’s ass ever since. I doubt many readers relate, but the humor of the moment created a treasured family memory and inspired a lingering interest in the story that afforded it.

As a biographic fiction, Sarah Miller’s Caroline played to that interest. Laura created her own legacy and one could make a solid argument for Michael Landon’s iconic portrayal of Charles, but Caroline was regulated to a supporting role in both the books and television series so I was naturally interested in seeing what sort of depth Miller’s novel might bring her character. Could such a story compete with the existing canon and cultural memory? There was only one way to find out.

Looking back, I have to say that I love how Miller chose to approach Caroline. The role of mother is often stereotyped and stale, but Miller gifted the Ingalls matriarch a complexity that is difficult to ignore. She’s a wife and mother, but more than that, she is woman with spirit, conviction, emotion, and dare I say it, a sex drive. Ground-breaking ideas, right? As a thirty-one-year-old mother of two, I could relate to this character and that’s pretty amazing when one considers how much has changed in the century and half that separates me from the world Caroline knew and experienced.

Unfortunately, characterization cannot carry a novel on its own. I adored Miller’s heroine, but I struggled with the pacing of the narrative. Much as I hate admitting it, the novel is slow and I often found it difficult to remain engaged in what was happening. I enjoyed the material, but I knew where this story was going before I picked it up and wish Miller had done more to counter the lack of mystery in the plot.

Recommended for fans of the Little House book, frontier and womens fiction.

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Those she could not bear to leave sat close around her, yet as she looked backward through the keyhole of canvas at the blur of waving hands, Caroline could not help but wonder whether Charles and the girls would be enough.
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