Review: Caroline: Little House, Revisited by Sarah Miller


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.


November Reading List: Dysfunctional Family Stories

November Cover

November is here! (Which is basically Christmas, right?) Time for family dinners and road trips and looking back on all the idyllic memories you’ve shared. Right. In my family, there have definitely been good times but we’ve also had our fair share of hilariously horrible times. Like the year my dad and I got into a giant fight at the Thanksgiving table about who would get to sit in the chair that had arms (I was an ADULT when this fight happened, you guys). Or how about the, um, creative insults my grandmother comes up with (I shave my forehead, apparently). And of course there’s always the one who brings up politics or makes a ridiculously inappropriate joke (um, that’s me. Every time). Every family has their kettle-callers and pot-stirrers. So this month, lets read about families that make ours look perfectly put together (and not, you know, how we normally are).

A book about families who don’t get along | The Violent Bear It Away, Flannery O’Connor: This one has it all: custody battles, sordid histories, religious conflicts, and a fair amount of drinking problems. The novel centers on Francis Tarwater, who’d been raised by his uncle to be a religious prophet. When his uncle dies he goes to live with his cousin, Rayber, who tries to teach Tarwater how to be a logical, educated, not-superstitious member of civilization. Of course this doesn’t go well, and each character battles on with himself and everyone else from start to finish. The novel deals with questions of family, religion, community, and  destiny in a way that’s a little too close to home if you grew up in the South.

A book about families who REALLY don’t get along | August: Osage County, Tracy Letts: This is my favorite play. It centers around Beverly and Violet Weston’s family—their three daughters and Violet’s sister. Beverly has gone missing, and the family comes together under one roof in the aftermath of their father’s disappearance. But between sisters and daughters and mothers and husbands, it isn’t a peaceful house. Old tensions run high, new tensions run higher, and every twisted part of everyone’s life is brought to light. And everyone in this play has something twisted in them. But despite all the family’s darkness, there is a lot of humor in this play, too. It’s definitely worth seeing on the stage.

A book about trying to forget your family, and then remembering them instead | Wild, Cheryl Strayed: This is a book about what happens when you try to walk away from your family, literally. After the death of her mother, Cheryl’s life fell apart around her. In her attempt to make sense of it all and put grieving behind her, she took to the Pacific Crest Trail, with absolutely no experience hiking or being in the wilderness. It’s a travel narrative, a nature piece, and a memoir about self-discovery. It’s a family story, too, and Strayed honestly and simply details her relationship with her brother, ex-husband, and friends. It also is a beautiful examination of the mother-daughter relationship, in all its complicated, fraught, tender glory.

A book about finding family in unexpected places | It’s Kind of a Funny Story, Ned Vizzini: This is a YA novel about anxiety, depression, suicide attempts, and psychiatric wards. Ned is 15 when he attempts suicide, and his is thereafter admitted into a psychiatric hospital. He at first feels he doesn’t belong there, but eventually accepts and is accepted by the other patients in the hospital. From these other patients, he learns about himself and how to cope with his life in a healthier way. The novel is funny and quick to read, reminiscent a little of John Green and Rainbow Rowell. Some might find the novel’s end a little too happily-ever-after, but I’m okay with a novel about teen suicide ending well.

October Reading List: Ghost Stories

October Reading List: 6 Ghost Stories for Halloween

October is the best month, shall we agree? The air turns cold, it’s finally breezy enough to open your windows at night; it’s the best time of year to snuggle up under a blanket and a bunch of cats to read and sip bourbon-y cocktails. Even better if your book is just a little bit creepy. This October, I’m all about the ghost stories. Here’s 3 I’ve read and recommend to you, and 3 new-to-me titles I’m going to read this month (with said blanket, cats, and bourbon-y cocktail).

What I’m Recommending:

October Reading List Individual Covers

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson: If you have not read this book yet, stop whatever you’re reading right now and read this instead. I finished this book in a weekend and had a hard time wanting to read anything else—it was so good it took up every available space in my brain and stayed there. Constance and Merricat live with their Uncle Julian in a large house on the outskirts of town. They are ostracized, believing that one of the sisters murdered the rest of the family. Their quiet lives are disturbed when a distant cousin comes to stay with them, believing they have money hidden in the house. The ghosts of the sisters’ past are brought out in haunting ways, unfolding into a darkly beautiful story of family, community, the natural world, and history. Merricat is a witchy character, and the novel unfolds in a mystery-meets-magic style. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is beautiful and compelling, dark and creepy.

Anya’s Ghost, Vera Brosgol: I came to this book through Vera Brosgol’s illustrations (one of her prints hangs in my foyer, and she one time posted a sketch on her blog that looks exactly like skinny versions of my husband and I). She writes graphic novels, paints, and has worked on the films Coraline and ParaNorman. Anya’s Ghost is about a normal teenage girl, Anya, self-conscious about her body, her Russian mother, and pretty much everything else in her life. She falls into a deep pit one day and discovers the ghost of a young woman who died nearly 100 years ago. At first it’s all, “Cool, ghost friend!” but of course, Anya’s ghost becomes more and more manipulative and dangerous. The plot sounds a bit cheesy, but the pacing keeps this story fresh and the art is delicious.


The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman: Pretty sure you’ve heard of this one. Another YA title but written in that distinctly-Gaiman voice that is captivating and a little disconcerting. Bod, whose family is dead, is being raised in a graveyard by an assortment of ghosts. Bod grows up learning ghostly skills (how to haunt, be invisible, and enter others’ dreams), and learns that the man who murdered his parents is still out for him. The novel twists and turns a bit before ending in this showdown, but every moment along the way is Gaiman-y fun. If you’re not into YA, try The Ocean at the End of the Lane, one of Gaiman’s most recent novellas, about a man who revisits his childhood home and rediscovers its magical, ghostly past. I love every Neil Gaiman book I’ve ever read, but this one is a particular favorite.

What I’m Reading:

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip vanWinkle,” Washington Irving: America’s first and most well-known short stories. I have read these both before, but hello, when you see a copy at a used bookstore for $2 you pretty much have to reread them. I will be pairing this 80 page read with Tim Burton’s version of Sleepy Hollow.

The Halloween Tree, Ray Bradbury: As much as I love Ray Bradbury, I am seriously under-read in his titles. The Halloween Tree has just been re-released with a fresh batch of illustrations by Gris Grimly, and if you order directly from the author he will personalize your copy with a clever little pumpkin on the title page. (Hat tip to JW Ocker from Odd Things I’ve Seen for an excellently-curated Halloween blog and this edition of the book). I actually don’t have much of a clue as to what this book is about, but I’m excited to read it with that lack of knowledge.

Through the Woods, Emily Carroll: Another graphic novel, but this one is a collection of graphic short stories (is that a thing? It is now.) All the stories are eerie and otherworldly, and I want to paste her illustrations to the inside of my eyelids, they are gorgeous and rich and creepy as hell.



I thought long and hard about putting some Steven King on this list because, confession time, I have never read one of his scary stories. And I’ve heard they’re doozies. What are you reading this October? What spooky stories would you recommend?

Book Club Questions: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

A few weeks ago, I got together with the most awesome group of women ever assembled for a long weekend on a lake. You should do this every so often with your friends, it’s great. We cooked good food, made good cocktails, watched The Golden Girls, colored pages from this coloring book, and even had an informal book club. Friends who read are the best friends.


Station Eleven is a good book club book. A flu has ravaged the globe, and most of the population is dead. What remains are small communities of survivors; what links them together is the Traveling Symphony, who puts on Shakespeare and plays music for each town they visit. Of course there’s a deranged cult leader to provide the novel’s drama. There are plenty of flashbacks to provide characters’ back stories, link characters and plotlines together, and of course remind you just how terrible things are if there’s no electricity.

It has broad appeal—both those in the post-apocalyptic Walking Dead camp and those who like more traditional literary fiction reads will enjoy this one. Our discussion of this book was pretty informal, so I don’t want to recap our discussion of it. Instead, I’ll give you some of the questions we asked in case you’re looking for some discussion starters with your own book club.

  • Who was your favorite character and why?
  • Who did you not like?
  • What are the differences between the generation born after the flu and those who lived in the world before it?
  • How does this novel compare to other post-disaster or post-apocalyptic stories you’ve read or watched? How does it differ?
  • Why Shakespeare?
  • Why was the graphic novel, Dr. Eleven, such an integral part of the novel?
  • What do you think of Arthur Leander’s character arc?
  • How are relationships different after the flu?
  • What would you contribute to the Museum of Civilization?
  • Why do you think cults and leaders like The Prophet are so common?
  • How do history and memory work in the novel?
  • What do you think about the new city introduced at the end of the novel?
  • Particular scenes or relationships that might be fun to explore more: Arthur and Clark, Jeevan and Frank, Jeevan realizing for the first time how serious the flu is going to be, the Air Gradia jet, finding the untouched house.

What’s your Book Club reading? Have you read Station Eleven? What are your thoughts on it?

Review: Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee

Review of Go Set a Watchman

Like every other English major on the planet, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on Go Set a Watchman. Unlike every other English major, I didn’t hate it. I actually enjoyed reading it, even. Several passages drew an intense emotional response from me (Sorry, Chick-fil-a lady, who was just trying to give me a mint, it was a tense moment for me). I adored Harper Lee’s writing; her sense of place and ability to write about the thing we call home has no equal. I enjoyed meeting some new characters and seeing how Jean Louise has grown up. It tugged at my heartstrings to see some familiar characters, too, and to see how their stories have developed.

It’s a gift to see Scout growing up into Jean Louise. In so many ways, Jean Louise is still Scout—perceptive, full of life, and totally unable to see things any way but her own. So of course we love her, rough edges and all. Back in Maycomb for a visit from New York, Jean Louise finds herself not at home anymore—both literally, because her childhood home is now an ice cream parlor, and emotionally, spiritually, because so much about her town and the people in it seem to have changed. She feels out of place in all of Maycomb, so much so that she questions how much she’s changed since being in New York.

Review of Go Set a Watchman

And then there’s that moment when she sees Atticus fail, for the first time ever in her eyes. There are several chapters in which Jean Louise wanders around Maycomb, tortured and amazed at what her town has become, what her people have become. It’s in these chapters that we really get to know Uncle Jack, who is my favorite character in this book. Obscure and intellectual, Uncle Jack is this other figure Jean Louise can turn to when she can’t stand to look at her father. I love how weird he is, and how he helps guide Jean Louise through this crisis of identity and place.

GoSetAWatchman Quote3

The biggest problem with this novel is that it isn’t really a novel. We have to read Go Set a Watchman for what it is—a rough (very rough) draft for To Kill a Mockingbird. The publishers really didn’t make it clear that Watchman was never meant to be a sequel to Mockingbird, so I can totally understand why readers would be disappointed in it. Go Set a Watchman doesn’t have a great plot, it doesn’t have great character development, nothing landmark really happens. What is great, though, are the flashbacks Jean Louise has, and that’s what Harper Lee’s original publishers wanted to see more of, too. (Also, can we just think for a moment about how Harper Lee’s rough drafts are better than pretty much anything else? (#fangirl) Even as a rough draft, this book has good bones.)

But despite all this, I still think there are valuable things to be taken from Go Set a Watchman. Everyone has a point in their lives where they see their parents’ imperfections and are finally able to recognize them as such, and this book has a lot to say about how we react to that moment. I was glad that Lee gave both Henry and Atticus the space to explain their side of things. Their reasons for their racism are so telling about race relations in the 1950s, and how white Americans understood their place and power in society. I think perhaps the explanations Henry and Atticus give would not be all that different from the explanations white people would give today if confronted with their racism. At the end of the book, Uncle Jack explains to Jean Louise how she can manage to live in a world where she and her father disagree on something so fundamental as civil rights, and his lesson is completely applicable to our lives today. “It’s always easy to look back and see what we were, yesterday, ten years ago,” he says, “It’s hard to see what we are.” And he’s right—as a person, as a country, it is very hard to see what we are. It’s hard to stop that gut reaction to the idea that you disagree with so completely. But that’s the very thing we must do if we are to ever grow out of our pasts and into something better.

GoSetAWatchman Quote2

[A note about everyone’s response to Atticus: I understand the reactions to this “new” Atticus. Certainly people are disappointed at how his character seemed to have radically changed from To Kill a Mockingbird. I would argue, though, his character didn’t actually change that much at all. Atticus Finch isn’t a perfect man in To Kill a Mockingbird; Atticus Finch may even be called a racist (in fact, literary critics have been calling Atticus racist for a good long while). Perhaps it’s been a while since we’ve read To Kill a Mockingbird, or maybe we’re remembering Gregory Peck more than the actual character, but I didn’t see Watchman’s Atticus as too far removed from Mockingbird’s.]

Did you read Go Set a Watchman? Or did the reviews scare you away? What are your thoughts on it?

The Windy Hill

Well, as I finished this book a few days before Thanksgiving, it’s really time I reviewed it, no?

Firstly, how great is it that it didn’t take the Newberry committee decades to honor a woman writer? Cornelia Meigs won the Newberry Honor a few times, and finally the Medal in 1934 with Invincible Louisa (which I cannot WAIT to read, as I probably read Little Women a fifty times over as an adolescent).

The Windy Hill is, firstly, a mystery. Young teenagers Oliver and Janet stay with their cousin Jasper for a summer, and befriend Polly and the Beeman. Jasper behaves strangely and erratically when a stranger intrudes on Jasper’s house, and Polly is determined to find out why. Through the Beeman’s fantastical stories and Oliver’s dogged curiosity, the siblings solve the mystery and save the town. It’s all very neat and adorable, but I must admit I was quite taken with The Windy Hill. Perhaps it was because Meig’s narration was far less stiff than her 1922 medalists’ counterparts. Perhaps it was because her story seemed more contemporary and far less historical. But I think it was more because the storytelling was good. The Beeman’s stories (chapter-length stories within the story) were simply transportive. The setting was quaint and the drama engaging. And yes, the story ended neatly and didactically, but isn’t that an expectation of literature written for children? We’re supposed to teach the little buggers a lesson, aren’t we? And somehow, Meigs manages this gracefully.

Why don’t grown-up people tell us things? It is miserable to be old enough to notice when affairs go wrong but not to be old enough to have them explained.