One of my favorite movies is You’ve Got Mail, the classic Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan romantic comedy. I love it for many reasons, but one of the main reasons is that Meg Ryan’s character, Kathleen Kelly, is a book lover. So much so, in fact, that she runs a children’s bookshop. In the movie she says
When you read a book as a child, it becomes a part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your whole life does.
I know from my own experience how true that is. The books I read over and over again as a child helped shape me into who I am today. I can point back to so many favorite stories about young people that inspired, encouraged, and challenged me. One key example is Laura Ingalls Wilder. I LOVED the Little House books. I read all of the originals and all of the spinoffs about Laura’s great-grandmother, grandmother, mother, and daughter. I read the books about Laura and Almanzo after they moved to the Ozarks. I read nonfiction accounts of her life on the prairie. If it had her name on it, I read it.
So naturally, when I heard that a new novel about Laura’s mother was being released, I was excited. I was even more excited when the publisher of the novel sent out an email to English teachers offering free books to preview for the classroom and Caroline was listed among the titles. There weren’t many copies available, but I sent my request in right away, and was pleasantly surprised when they mailed me a copy of the book a few weeks later!
The subtitle of Caroline is “Little House, Revisited,” and the author, Sarah Miller, takes the reader on a journey that is familiar to Little House fans. The book begins with the Ingalls family leaving their little house in the big woods and traveling across miles of open country to settle on the prairie.
It’s this familiar journey that made this book so meaningful to me. Reading Caroline was strange–it was like I was re-reading something from my childhood while also experiencing it from a new, mature perspective. I remembered the events described in the novel from the children’s books, but walking that road with Caroline instead of Laura opened my eyes to the incredible challenges of pioneer life. It was almost as if my love of the Little House books had come full circle. When I read the children’s books, I was near Laura’s age, imagining what it would have been like to be a girl out on the prairie. When I read Caroline, I imagined what it would be like for me, now, if I had children of my own, to leave behind everything I know and venture outside of the edges of society.
In addition to reliving the story from an adult perspective, the prose in this novel is beautiful. I was struck by how little Caroline speaks–she doesn’t say much out loud, but her inner life is rich and lovely. The longest speech she makes comes towards the end of the novel, yet I felt as if I knew her intimately because of the way Miller narrates her thoughts. She paints Caroline Ingalls as a strong woman who has her own fears and doubts about the path her husband has chosen. I love the fact that the picture-perfect, patient “Ma” from the Little House books is depicted here to have real struggles about her own worth as a person and her place as a woman.
The one down side to this novel was that it ended too soon. And if you ask me, that’s the mark of a pretty great book. I highly recommend this to anyone who is a Laura Ingalls Wilder fan, but even if you didn’t read the Little House books when you were young, this novel is beautiful and spellbinding.