Sunday, January 6, 2019

Caroline: Little House, Revisited by Sarah Miller

Caroline Little House, Revisited
Sarah Miller
Published 2017

Caroline, by Sarah Miller, is Little House on the Prairie, as if told by Laura Ingalls Wilder's mother, Caroline Ingalls. It seemed like a great idea to rewrite the story from Caroline's position, but I felt like I was reading about what I would have thought, or another 21st century woman, on the road with the typically preoccupied husband. Also, Miller shared a little too much info, otherwise known as TMI.

For example, the author did not shy away from every day realities, like the latrine, something Laura Ingalls Wilder excluded from her stories. Miller described the feminine products Caroline had to make for herself and the messy details as to why, after Caroline delivered baby Carrie.

In this perspective, Caroline was deeply introspective -- much more than I imagined the self-denying, exceptionally decent, and morally upstanding Caroline of the Little House series. But in this version, we hear only Caroline's voice, and it is rather contemporary. Often times she had the attitude of a helpless young girl -- inadequate, lamentable, and forlorn.

This Caroline pitied herself because she could not build something as long lasting as Charles did, like a house. She felt sorry for herself; she felt lonely.
That was what she had been missing while Charles was away. Not her husband's company, but the chance to share her own. The girls had their games and giggles, the men their brash hijinks (speaking of their bachelor neighbor, Mr. Edwards). Caroline had only herself. 
 She complained that she did not have choices, but Charles did.
It was only that he had these chances to unhitch himself from everything, and she did not. There was never the extravagance of an afternoon all to herself...
Envy, pure and simple, and nothing she said to herself would snuff the resentful flicker in her throat. 
When Charles rushed back to the house after fifty wolves were at his heels, and after he caught his breath, he said to Caroline,
I was glad you had the gun, Caroline, and glad the house is built. I knew you could keep the wolves out of the house, with the gun. But Pet and the foal were outside.
Caroline bridled so suddenly the fear fell right out of her. Why had he gone off at all if he had reason to worry about the stock? Did it never occur to Charles that it might behoove them all to worry about himself now and again?  Perhaps he would remember that the next time he took it into his head to trot off toward the horizon.
Smartly, Caroline suggested they would eat dinner in the house, but Charles contradicted her and said it was not necessary because Jack (their dog) would give them enough warning. And to herself Caroline remarked,
If they ate inside there would be no need of warning, but she did not bother saying so. That sort of logic held no sway with Charles. 
Charles maintained a cavalier attitude about the Indians taking the cornmeal, which Caroline had to stretch and feed to her family; he did not consider the long trip to Independence to replace the things the Indians took a burden (at least for himself). Naturally, Caroline was indignant.

And this too: Caroline stewed over Charles's chastisement of Mary and Laura because they considered releasing their dog while the Indians were in the house (though they kept the dog chained, after all). Caroline thought: "What did he expect moving his family into Indian Territory? They were smarter than he gave them credit."
In a place like this, there could be no room for blind obedience. It was all the more dangerous to render them more wary of upsetting their pa than of the Indians. Their fear would guard them -- if only Charles would leave them free to obey it. 
Caroline considered in her mind how Charles could and would do nothing about the Indians in the house, although his silence on the matter was frustrating. He held no malice toward any man or beast, until they proved otherwise; therefore, he justified leaving Caroline and the girls home alone.

Immediately after that conflict, she felt selfish and spiteful toward Charles, and she wallowed in how he was not included in the tight bond between baby Carrie and herself. She childishly hoped she hurt Charles's feelings and even shrugged him off when he tried to coax her.

These are a few examples of the unexpected voice and behavior of Caroline toward her husband. Only once I  remember from the Little House series how Caroline raised her voice at Charles, and she immediately apologized. The apology was not warranted, but she maintained such honor and esteem for her husband that she does not strike me as the kind of woman who would have harbored self-centered, bitter, or spiteful thoughts toward him. If she did, she would have extinguished those feelings or opinions immediately. She was mature, self-controlled, well-grounded, wise, and extremely focused on her own work. 

Now, I must give warning or a heads up about the intimacy between husband and wife, and the graphic breastmilk descriptions, especially involving Charles. [Awkward.] There was more information than I needed to know about Charles that I cannot talk about. You will have to take my word for it. The real Caroline Ingalls would blush to know someone wrote about her husband (and herself) this way. 

Regretfully, Caroline was not written in the fashion that Little House fans are accustomed. What has been lost is the art of being discreet, not just in this story, but also in society. Having grown up in a time when men and women practiced being tactful, mindful, and prudent, Caroline taught these sensible standards to her girls. When writing the Little House series, Laura was deliberate to leave out private and personal matters, such as you-know-what. There is no purpose or reason to include these events or ideas. 

Caroline and Charles Ingalls, married 1860

THE LOST ART OF BEING DISCREET

Speaking of nursing...let me apply a modern example of being discreet. Today it is all the rage to breastfeed (uncovered) in public. Because we are so self-absorbed, women think covering up while nursing in public means we are being shamed; and being more protective of our pride than our bodies, we want to  remove our cover and declare our right to feed our babies in public, ruthlessly, in need be. We think we are being noble and wise, but in essence, we have lost the art of being discreet. 

In our society, women do not bare their breasts in public for a reason - though that is fast changing; why think it is any different just because we are nursing? That cover is to guard what is ours. It is more than a prevention of offense or being mindful of someone else's feelings; it is to defend what is ours; it is a powerful protection of our business, property, and privacy. But we have sadly lost that. 

Instead, we want to do the opposite and carelessly and provocatively display ourselves openly, like Miller does in Caroline, which I think the real Caroline (or at least the one Laura portrayed) would be greatly ashamed. Maybe that is harsh to charge Miller with being provocative, but that is how I tie it into my culture today; people think it is more powerful to be shocking than it is to be discreet; but Caroline, through Laura, showed us otherwise.

Charles and Caroline

IS THIS BOOK FOR YOU?

Little House fans will be tempted to read this, but you must be forewarned: it is not the Caroline Ingalls you know or are familiar. She is more like...me and you...a contemporary woman, more sensitive to and vocal about the discrepancies and grievances and discomforts of being a woman, a wife, and a mother. Yes, I am guilty of these things, too.

Heads up: there are a lot of breast and breastfeeding and breast milk scenes. And the intimacy between Charles and Caroline was not subtle and quite uncomfortable. I only read as much as I did because I was in shock that I was reading it at all. Eventually, I skipped ahead. I think I blushed more while reading Caroline than I did during Madam Bovary.

It is kind of a bummer because I wanted to enjoy it, but I am a disappointed. I have an ideal of Caroline Ingalls, and I want to keep it that way. Even if it is not the true Caroline, I like the one I already know more.

28 comments:

Sharon Wilfong said...

This is exactly why I steer clear of contemporary takes or sequels of great writing. These authors are just riding on the coat tails and, frankly, I think their writing is inferior and they know it so they have to "spice up" the story to make readers want to buy their book.

The problem in my opinion is that the sort of person (you, me) that would want to read a book about Caroline Ingalls, would not enjoy the salacious detail.

I wonder why our culture has gotten to the point where "edgy" equates being sophisticated? How about classy or good taste?

Paula Vince said...

Your review gives me the same feeling I've had from a few others, that Sarah Miller's Caroline doesn't sound a whole lot like Laura's description of her Ma. She sounds like an interesting psychological study of a pioneer woman, but doesn't match our ideas of this particular one. I'm not sure the Ingalls ladies would have approved, including the TMI bits.

Carol said...

What a shame! Not that I’m surprised...

Ruth said...

Miller actually says they did give her the thumbs up, which is shocking to me! Then it makes me think, well, who are these women on the board who would give the thumbs up? So there you go.

Ruth said...

I know...to both.

Ruth said...

Maybe Miller did not care to target people like us. Or maybe she saw the unbelievable reception 50 Shades got and thought she needed to heat things up on the prairie. I have no idea.

Mostly I think she took our contemporary voice and gave it to Ma. I was very tempted to ask similar questions of Pa; however, the difference she would have never thought severely or selfishly of her husband's decisions, even if they seem harsh to us. She was just of a different time and place. And it would have been masterful if Miller could have tapped into that.

Michelle Ann said...

I have always thought that Caroline must have had a very hard and lonely life, especially when I read that she could recite the one novel she owned off by heart! However, life was tough for everyone in those days, and she would not have seen it through 21st century eyes. It's a pity that novelists tend to write these sequels from a modern perspective.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Laughing out loud!!! Heat things up on the prairie!

Sharon Wilfong said...

Also, women had more respect then, I don't care what contemporaries say. Pa respected ma's opinion and never did anything without her say so. He was the dreamer and she was the grounded one. She had a quiet strength and I think was, in many respects, the backbone of the family. But Ma and Pa were a good team and showed nothing but respect and love for each other in front of their children.

Hamlette said...

Oh my goodness, why was this even written? Thanks for the warning, cuz I will 100% avoid it.

former blogger said...
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former blogger said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
former blogger said...

Sorry! I tried to explain what I like about the book above, but I'm currently distracted and realize I'm articulating my points quite poorly here. I'll return if I find the time to say it better. (And this only because you asked for clarification about my appreciation of the novel on Goodreads yesterday.) :)

former blogger said...

Hello, Ruth! Sorry, last night was a bit chaotic and distracted, so I thought I'd try again today. So, it's been long enough since I read this novel I can't recall details, but I do remember feeling a little stifled and confined while reading it. The story is very insular, and as you say, whiny at times. I remember feeling that the Caroline offered in this book is quite self-indulgent and negative -- not much like the hardy, go-get-em Caroline we see in her daughter's books.
You asked me to say why it appears I like this novel nonetheless (since I can't seem to get the feel of it out of my head), and I'll try to do that here, though this would come out so much better if I'd written it right after I read the novel:

1) I actually love all the gratuitous scenes about how biologically messy it is to be a woman. That doesn't make it into literature or on screen, but it's a fact of the female life we all have to grudgingly face. I've wondered how women dealt with it back in Caroline's day, and the image of her making her own feminine products really hit home for me because women have basically been left to work that out in private. I can't see Caroline discussing it with Charles or anything, so she's probably often alone in the grueling occupation of attending to the female avalanche. :) It's like the great human secret that has been left out of all the history books. I didn't mind at all seeing it boldly addressed by Caroline. That's historically relevant: it's part of the human story. 2) We've seen Caroline through a couple filters: first she was made into a mythical character by her daughter: a woman who fit the female ideal in her day -- silent, obedient, moral. Second, we've seen her through the 20th century male filter in the 1970s television show Little House on the Prairie. You say things above like "Caroline wouldn't this and that," but respectfully, we don't actually know the real Caroline. We've never seen her. To filter her through a 21st century feminist lens is no more a filter than that of a loving daughter who saw what her mother allowed her to see, but perhaps no more. I'm reminded of the moment in Little Women when Marmee admits to Jo that she carries around a lot of bottled up anger. We don't have any idea what Caroline was really thinking while she presented a stiff upper lip and a go-get-em spirit. I LIKE considering that there was a lot more going on in there than cheerful endurance. Not because I want to undermine what Laura had to say about her mother, but because that's likely the reality for a whole lot of women back then who had to present an acceptable face to the world. This is a woman who may have been reading the Bront√ęs, Wollstonecraft, George Eliot. I'm thinking she had private opinions wholly unrelated to her children's welfare or her husband's desire for dinner. Yet we don't see those in the Laura books. Laura likely never saw them. Sure, the version of Caroline seems 21st century in places. I totally agree that's a miss. But I like that the author tried to give us a new perspective on Caroline.

(split into two posts because blogger can't take long comments)

former blogger said...

3) I don't personally remember the breast-feeding scenes from the book, but they likely added to my appreciation of the novel, simply because they showed me an historical angle on how that might have been handled. Again, this truly real facet of female life is rarely mentioned in literature. Caroline was a wife and mother: did she have to sneak off every hour into a dark corner while the family charged on go-getting-em, or was she a part of things, and included despite the inconvenient reality of breast-feeding? I didn't mind at all seeing this real part of female history addressed through Caroline. 4) I loved the love-making scenes for the same reason. They didn't feel gratuitous to me. I thought they were tastefully written, and again, they felt interesting to me. Because how in the world did they have so many children while also living in, say, a covered wagon? We got to see a grittier, more realistic version of the Ingalls life. As in, I feel that the author ripped off a bit of the mythological dressing and let us see some of the kinks. 5) Finally, I truly, truly appreciate that the author interrogates some of what I find HIGHLY IRRITATING about Charles, but in a fair, balanced way. She doesn't fall into the feminist trap of throwing the man under the bus to uplift the female in history. As I recall, Charles is depicted in this novel at times as angry (which we don't see in Laura's books), at times as extremely loving, at times as full of life and laughter, at times as reckless. The author gives us a realistic look at what I'm guessing was a dynamic, interesting, and rather irritating man through his wife's eyes. The picture felt honest to me: full of love, impatience, disenchantment, and finally peace. That's why I loved the love-making scenes. They felt human to me: tied to a theme of endurance that I feel is all throughout this novel.

You (that's a universal you) can't call Caroline strong and enduring unless we see her endure, and frankly the woman had far more to endure than snowstorms. She was raising a whole family. She had to endure while putting on a happy face. She had to endure while sometimes being the adult with a reckless husband. She had to endure while pregnant, full of raging PMS (we've all been there!), while giving birth in a home with very little privacy, she had to endure having lost her child and knowing no adult female to confide in, having to take care of the spillage of her own body, having to raise daughters able to endure as she did. I do feel that the author went too far in places, failing to balance Caroline's agony with love, cheer, and what likely was a go-get-em philosophy. And I agree that a woman of the time period would likely have confronted the imbalance of equality between men and women in a different way thank someone from the 21st century. But I approve of the stark look at her life, and would likely reread this novel simply for the different angle it offers on female life on the prairie. My feeling on Caroline is that she was a bold, highly intelligent and well-read woman who likely loved her family from the bottom of her heart. But I think it's a travesty to suggest it was easy for her. x

- jillian <3

Ruth said...

Jillian, (sorry if I am all over the place...I want to answer before my kids get up.) Thank you for your detailed explanation. You made very valid points. I suppose this comes down to a preference for different readers, concerning how much they want, need, or like to know. If this was a non-fictional account, it would have worked better for me; but because it was a novel, and I already had a preconceived idea of Caroline, I suppose I was hoping for something similar.

If someone had never been introduced to Caroline through Laura's books, then maybe they need to know about the difficulties and complications that Miller included. But I don't know how someone can read the Little House books and not imagine the hardships Laura left out, including the daily natural complications of life. It wasn't romanticism on Laura's part to sanitize her story, but rather her good judgment to be discreet.

Regretfully, some scenes were totally unnecessary. Descriptions about Charles were way more than I wanted to know. And I do not want to imagine intimacy between two people, even done in "good taste." It is a matter of personal conviction -- some natural and intimate behavior should remain private. It is an issue readers will have to judge for themselves. But...I suppose if it was Miller's intent to be realistic and transparent, then that is what she did. Other than that, writing about the hardships were appropriate and necessary and good, though I still think Caroline's voice was off, even if we cannot know for certain her thoughts.

So all this talk has prompted me to consider reading a book I have, called Letters of a Woman Homesteader by Elinore Pruitt Steward, about a woman who took up homesteading, in 1909, Wyoming, to prove that women could ranch...on their own. I'm curious what she has to say of her hardships and life on the frontier, in hopes of getting another voice closer to Caroline's or Laura's.

~ Ruth

Hamlette said...

I hereby predict that you are gonna LOVE Letters of a Woman Homesteader.

Hamlette said...

(I picked it up just now, to be sure it's as charming and joyous and rambunctious as I remember, and I'm 11 pages in and just going to reread it myself because it's so wonderful.)

Ruth said...

Haha! I started reading it already too, and the author is a character!

Ruth said...

It’s unfortunate, too, because given your love of the West, this would have been perfect.

Hamlette said...

:-D Yeah, she amuses me greatly.

Ruth said...

I don't know if Caroline ever felt lonely. While it never made sense to me why Charles moved them to the middle of nowhere when they lived nicely in Minnesota, near family; I still think work was more important than socializing, in those days. According to Laura, she liked having neighbors and living near town, with a school and church. It must have been important to keep in touch with family, too. But I don't know that it was a lonely life for her, given she had so much to do and she had her girls and her husband with her.

L said...

I was struck by your comment: "people think it is more powerful to be shocking than it is to be discreet." I'm a modest Christian woman, but that doesn't mean I'm a prude, nor do I feel the need to prove to others that I am not a prude by exhibiting shocking behavior. In fact, I feel that just the opposite, being discreet, makes one more powerful. Practicing self-control and restraint is never easy, yet is much more rewarding and lasting than a shocking display.

Carrie said...

I think Caroline would have been very lonely. I'm an American currently living on the prairies of Canada. And while I have a husband, kids, home educate, the internet (!!!), a small acreage in the country, I do not have anyone here. I do not have friends. It is difficult to meet people here, and, I know it goes against the stereotype, Canadians are not as friendly as they'd like us to believe! When I feel really down, I think back to the women and men (especially the women) who left all they knew to start a new life in a new land far away from anything and anyone. I agree that staying alive was more important than socializing, when there were events, it was a big deal about attending them. Because when you live somewhere where there's not a soul to count on when the tough gets going, it is a very, very lonely feeling. Having a lot to do does not mean one is not lonely. Community is a part of us.

Ruth said...

Exactly.

Ruth said...

Carrie, I hear ya...humans need other humans. I just wonder if Caroline never felt lonely because of the kind of woman she was. We cannot know that she had the particular thoughts that the author of Caroline suggests. It's possible, though we shall never know. I am reading a book written by a woman homesteader, right now, and she talks about having so much work that she does not have time to dwell on her thoughts of loneliness. I suppose it depends on the individual. I know I would find a way to feel it, if I were Caroline, especially b/c my husband moved me away from family to nowhere. So I know exactly what you must be going through.

Jillian said...

* though I still think Caroline's voice was off, even if we cannot know for certain her thoughts. *

Yes, I totally agree. I had the same sense. And I see your point on fiction versus non-fiction. My natural preference is non-fiction (I'm fascinated by history) so that likely colored my read. :)

Jillian said...

Sorry, should have linked this comment to our thread above. :P