I so much wanted to love this book! In awe of Ma Ingalls since I was a little girl, I fairly clapped my hands in anticipation as I picked up this new title based on the storied Little House on the Prairie. Of course, it was Laura who captured my soul. I didn’t just admire her. I wanted to be her. In fact, I was her repeatedly! She was my go-to for all those elementary school author dress-up days. Okay, I rode that book report like a covered wagon all the way through junior high school. Full disclosure: I actually dressed as her for Decade Day at school back in the fall. There I was in calico and bonnet walking around with a bunch of kids who looked like they either stepped out of an MTV video (back when they played them) or off the set of Grease. In my defense, the organizers didn’t specify the century!
Needless to say, I had a pretty strong mental picture already formed of Caroline Ingalls. If you are a fan of the hit TV series, you know it’s hard to separate her from Karen Grassle, the actress who portrayed her all those years. Remember that episode where Ma almost cut off her own leg because she was crazed with infection? Great TV, right there! By that time, the show had already gone off the rails of the book series kind of like Game of Thrones has these days. Remember a little Tori Spelling running to the library to find the book series once Laura decided to write her story?
I definitely approached this book with a wagonload of expectations, banking on its full approval by the Little House Historical Trust (yes, that’s a thing). The author, Sarah Miller, specializes in Young Adult writing and treated the story with a loving hand. She did a great job reworking key scenes like the river crossing and the prairie fire from Caroline’s perspective. Miller played into my long-held belief that Mary was the favored child, and I laughed out loud when Miller’s Caroline admitted that Laura got on her nerves. She was introspective as I expected, but somehow Miller’s Caroline was not quite “my” Ma.
I wanted Caroline to be a little pluckier, not in a pioneering sense, but in attitude. She came across as more repressed than resilient. Maybe that was supposed to be a function of femininity and setting, both place and historical context. The details of wagon travel and serving as a mother, wife, and helpmeet in the wild were exquisite. You need look no further than Caroline whipping up animal brain slurry to tan hides to know she’d surely score in the 8-9 range on Naked and Afraid. But, it was her internal struggle that I found a bit hollow, and, to be frank, at times preachy.
I wanted Caroline to rail, to give Charles what-for at least one good time. He takes their babies off into Indian Territory, risks starvation as well as freezing to death, settles them on land they don’t own…and Caroline is just plain mealy-mouthed about it all, even to the point of feeling guilty over a jar of pickles. I’d be nagging enough to make Harriet Olsen look a saint. That’s precisely what makes Caroline Ingalls so fascinating; she’s larger than life. She folds her doubts as neatly away as the blue china shepherdess tucked safely in the folds of her trunk, both a treasure and a symbol of her hardened fragility—and gets to work.
This, I am sure, was a tough book to write. It’s a difficult task to bring fresh perspective to such a well-known story, especially one with the historical connections this one carries. Although I would have painted my version of Caroline in a somewhat different light, Sarah Miller stayed true to the spirit of Little House lore and created a fitting nuance to a beloved character.
Rocky Rates It