Review: Caroline: Little House, Revisited by Sarah Miller

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Written with the approval of the Little House Trust, Caroline is a retelling of the beloved classic, The Little House on the Prairie. Told from Caroline’s perspective, this novel reimagines Little House’s characters and events.

Miller chose to obey a historically accurate timeline, while Wilder’s books did not. The result of this is that Miller’s book feels a little jarring, or wrong, in comparison. Baby Carrie, for example, isn’t born until well after the Ingalls family arrives in Kansas, and Jack the Bulldog shows up late, too. The motivation for the family leaving their tiny prairie home changes, as well. These are small(ish) changes, but observing historical accuracy over faithfulness to the children’s book isn’t a choice I agree with.

What Miller does really well in Caroline is retell the original story’s plot from Caroline’s perspective In The Little House on the Prairie, Caroline does not figure nearly as importantly as Laura or Pa; in Caroline she becomes the most important figure. The narrator shares Caroline’s deepest feelings and thoughts. While in Little House readers may hear only a sentence or two from Caroline, in Miller’s book we get entire chapters of rumination.

Caroline, as a character, is a bit overwrought. Miller rightly portrays Caroline as a fraught, anxious young mother and wife, full of doubt and fear for her family’s future in Kansas. However Miller at times goes too far to make Caroline thoughtful, and the result is a character that is too measured, too carefully constructed. Caroline is almost never happy in Miller’s retelling, and this, I think, is too far astray from Little House on the Prairie’s depiction. Worse, Caroline’s unhappiness in Miller’s book at times feels only like a tool–a device to push Miller’s many motifs home in the reader’s mind.

These motifs–mainly considering motherhood, the responsibility of mothers to their children, women’s roles in early American families, Native American relationships, and community dynamics–are good, and thought provoking, but too heavy-handed and forced. They either come together too neatly, or not at all, and I would have enjoyed a more middle ground approach to answering the questions Caroline’s character asks.

Overall, though, I deeply enjoyed getting Caroline’s perspective on Little House on the Prairie’s events. Re-reading these scenes through Caroline’s eyes provided deeper insight into not only the Ingalls family, but peripheral characters, too. THe Ingalls’ neighbors, Edwards and Mr. and Mrs. Scott, become far more interesting through Caroline’s eyes, and these deeper characterizations lead to considerations of settler communities and relationships. Some of the most poignant scenes are of Caroline’s interactions with her children and husband–the narrator gives such deep insight into Caroline’s thoughts here that the family seems so much more vivid and real to me.

Two scenes, though, left me just as bewildered as in the the original story. In Little House, the moment when Laura breaks down as the Osage tribe passes by the Ingalls homestead baffled me–why did Laura feel such a connection to the Osage baby? Why did she cry for it and want to possess it? What moved her about this procession? Caroline goes no further to bring clarity to this scene.

One last complaint is a weird sexual motif Miller repeatedly employs. The first time it appears, Charles is depicted as craving Kansas with similar lusty cravings for his wife’s body. The exact quote is “He did not know how else to show his burgeoning love for Kansas, and so he wanted to do with her what he could not do with the land.” It’s a weird image, and one that is repeated a few more times across the entire novel. In addition to being just plain strange, this image is problematic in terms of how Charles views his wife. Is she a territory to be claimed? Conquered? Caroline’s character in this book is not so wild and unruly that she needs to be “staked out” in the same way the Kansas territory was, Is she supposed to be representative of the same freedom Charles thinks he’ll achieve in Kansas? If so what does it mean that these dreams are dashed at the novel’s end? This is one motif in Caroline I could not accept or fully understand, and I wish it had been handled better.

Overall, though, Caroline is an enjoyable read, and fans of the Little House series will enjoy it. This would be a great book club selection to dive deeper into all the themes Miller’s approach to Caroline offers.

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