50 pages 1 hour read

Carol Ryrie Brink

Caddie Woodlawn

Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 1935

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Summary and Study Guide


Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink is a work of historical fiction written for young adult audiences. It was originally published in 1935 and is set in the 1860s, during the time of westward expansion and pioneers. Much of the book is based on Brink’s grandmother’s stories about her family and their adventures as settlers in Wisconsin. In fact, many of the locations mentioned in the text can still be visited today. Caddie Woodlawn won the Newbery Medal in 1936 and the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award in 1958. Brink wrote other books with the Caddie Woodlawn character, including Magical Melons and Caddie Woodlawn’s Family.

Plot Summary

Caddie Woodlawn lives in Wisconsin with her parents, John and Harriet; her sisters, Clara, Hetty, and Minnie; her brothers, Tom and Warren; and Nero, the family dog. The Woodlawns had another daughter, Mary, who died and is buried on their farm. Though the novel takes place in 1864, the family’s daily life is far removed from the Civil War.

The novel opens on Caddie, Tom, and Warren crossing the river to watch the Native Americans craft a canoe. On the way home, Caddie lingers to pick more hazelnuts and outdo her brothers, but when she arrives home to dinner and finds that the circuit rider is there, she is mortified at her tardiness and disheveled appearance. As the circuit rider talks with the Woodlawns, he expresses concern about the rumors of Native American uprisings, but Mr. Woodlawn insists on the Native Americans’ friendliness and tells tales of their positive interactions.

After pigeon hunting season has come and gone, Uncle Edmund visits. Edmund takes Caddie hunting with him, as the boys are too critical of his approach, but when Caddie laughingly challenges Edmund to a boat race home, Edmund sabotages her raft. After Caddie plunges into the water, she gets angry, and Edmund quickly works to get back into her good graces, giving her the dollar she would have won had she completed the race. At the end of Edmund’s visit, he takes Nero to St. Louis with him despite Caddie’s protests and Mrs. Woodlawn’s concern that he is too irresponsible. After Edmund leaves, Mrs. Woodlawn tries to sell her turkeys at market, but no one buys them, prompting her to express her disdain for Wisconsin and its inhabitants.

At school Caddie gets into a fight with an older boy, Obediah Jones, because he is rude to her friend. Miss Parker, the teacher, reprimands Obediah in front of the class, affirming her role as authority figure. One afternoon after spelling contests, Caddie falls through the ice at the mill pond, but Tom and Warren save her. Caddie comes down with a terrible cold, and when she can’t go to school, she explores the attic. She finds mysterious breeches and clogs, and she also finds the clocks that her father means to repair. She attempts to fix the circuit rider’s clock, and with her father’s help and encouragement, she succeeds. Later, Caddie shows the clogs and breeches to her family, prompting her father to recount the poverty of his childhood after his own father was disowned. Caddie is upset by the difficulties of her father’s life, but Mr. Woodlawn asserts that he is proud of what he has because he earned it.

Caddie discovers that Tom has purchased a valentine for Katie Hyman, the seamstress’s daughter, and she keeps his secret when her younger sister Hetty suspects him as Katie’s admirer. The children continue with school, swapping their turkey with the Hankinson children and celebrating Washington’s birthday with patriotic pride. As Caddie wrestles with her mother’s desire for her to be more ladylike, she returns from school to find her mother upset by Edmund’s letter that Nero is lost. Late that evening, a neighbor comes to warn the Woodlawns that the Native Americans are planning a massacre. While Mr. Woodlawn doubts a massacre is imminent, he offers his home as a gathering space.

While the neighbors gather, Caddie overhears several men planning to defy her father and attack the Native Americans. Caddie takes it upon herself to warn Indian John and his people, making Katie Hyman promise not to tell where she has gone. After giving her warmth and food, Indian John listens to Caddie’s warning and agrees to move his people, but first he insists on accompanying Caddie home despite the danger. Upon Caddie’s return, Mr. Woodlawn and Indian John speak and clarify their peaceful intentions. Though the massacre scare was a rumor, the Native Americans decide to move away for a while. Before leaving, Indian John asks Caddie to look after his dog and his scalp belt until his return. Tom, Caddie, and Warren plan a show featuring John’s scalp belt for their classmates.

At school Caddie and the other children watch as Mrs. Hankinson, a Native American woman married to a white man, says goodbye to her children and rejoins her people. Caddie feels bad for the Hankinson children and spends her entire dollar on them. The Woodlawns put on a dramatic show with the scalp belt, but they realize that Katie didn’t attend and that she hasn’t been at school since the massacre scare. Tom and Caddie visit her, telling her tales of their adventures and showing her the scalp belt. Miss Parker assigns Caddie and Warren pieces to recite for a performance. Caddie’s goes well, but Warren accidentally recites the joke version that Tom taught him, causing the audience to roar with laughter and angering Miss Parker. After Tom bails Warren out of trouble, the children walk home through a violent storm, narrowly escaping a lightning strike.

During a break from school, Mr. Woodlawn tells the children to plow the far field on their own. Plowing quickly grows monotonous, and the children take turns so that those not plowing can tell stories. The little steamer returns and brings word of Robert E. Lee’s surrender and the end of the Civil War. Caddie sits by her sister’s gravesite and has a nice conversation with Hetty. From that vantage point, the girls see the circuit rider arrive, and he brings news of Lincoln’s assassination.

School resumes, and one day Indian John’s dog kicks up a fuss outside. When Caddie goes to quiet him, she sees a prairie fire approaching the school. Caddie runs to get help from town while Obediah Jones leads the effort to protect the school.

Polished young cousin Annabelle arrives and talks constantly of Boston’s superiority. Tom, Caddie, and Warren play tricks on her, causing her to fall off a horse and get attacked by sheep, which Annabelle handles better than expected. After the children trick Annabelle into somersaulting on an egg, Mrs. Woodlawn singles out Caddie for punishment. Mr. Woodlawn talks to Caddie about how important women are and how she doesn’t have to conform to all of the characteristics of a lady.

Mr. Woodlawn brings home a letter saying that he has inherited his family’s lordship if he gives up American citizenship and moves to England. Clara and Mrs. Woodlawn are excited, but Mr. Woodlawn preaches caution about deciding too hastily, and Caddie knows she wants to stay. When the family votes on their fate, only Clara chooses to go, but she quickly rescinds her decision. Mrs. Woodlawn says she loves Wisconsin because of how happy her family is there, and she and her husband tearfully embrace.

That fall Indian John returns and collects his scalp belt and his dog. Nero returns after an arduous journey from St. Louis on foot, and the circuit rider returns, prompting Caddie to consider all that has happened in the past year.

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