What is the appeal of the old-fashioned stiff upper lip? Of a person with backbone, inner strength, dogged determination? Caroline, by Sarah Miller, is an imagined character study of Caroline Ingalls, the mother of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the famous Little House books. Miller emphasizes “Caroline’s” inner strength, modesty and restraint, and makes her both admirable and likeable. The return to realism in this revisitation of the beloved book series provides an interesting contrast to the innocuous and romantic images that many fans have of the pioneering Ingalls family. But how did Miller do that?
Most Americans would know the books, but fewer would have read the factual history of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family, called Pioneer Girl – The Annotated Biography (2014). As readers of Pioneer Girl found out, the Little House books, and the television series that was based on them, are fictionalized and cleaned-up versions of events in the real family’s lives.
Our familiarity with, and affection for, the Little House phenomenon is a good example of our natural tendency to think of much-loved fictional characters as real, and to keep wanting to see more of those characters after their creator has died. The Little House on the Prairie website keeps the legend of the Ingalls family alive with a mix of fact, fiction and fancy, featuring both the actors from the TV series and the historical figures, and no end of merchandise, from books to quilts to kitchen tools.
But it was the TV series, Little House on the Prairie, that ran from 1974 to 1983 and is still being aired in syndication, as well as Garth Williams’s soft pencil illustrations in the 1953 edition of the books, that created many of the images that we have of the family. Most people have in their heads images of the cosy, cute little cabins that Charles Ingalls (the intrepid pioneer with a bad case of wanderlust) built for his wife and children in the Wisconsin woods and on the prairies of Independence, Kansas, in Osage Indian territory. Many people will think of “Charles” as handsome Michael Landon, and “Caroline” as glamorous blonde actress Karen Grassle.
This novel is a “revisit” of the Little House books – though it was published “with the full approval of the Little House Heritage Trust”. But it must have been tough to create a fresh perspective when there are so many myths and memes about the Ingalls family.
The preconceived notions, and not the actual prairie cabin (long since replaced by a reconstruction), nor its real inhabitants, nor the prairie, the Indians, the towns or the region’s history, constitute the mental world we have of the family. Therefore, unsurprisingly, Miller treads a careful path between the established fictional ideas, and the historical facts. The novel is much more realistic than many previous portrayals, and while the character of “Caroline” is still typical of a woman of that era – the late 1800s – she is still a convincing protagonist.
It is historical fiction, not non-fiction. Miller does occasionally bring in established notions, such as the looks of the family members – and these are noticeable. In other instances, she adds realistic details (explained in the Author’s Note, p. 364) and in general captures much more accurately the tone and spirit of pioneer life at that time than the previous novels that feature this family.
Tough life for pioneers
Things were rough in the 1870s in Kansas, when Charles Ingalls and his family arrived to establish a land claim. It was a dangerous, politically unstable, perilous time and the family were not the saints they were made out to be. The Kansas–Nebraska Act became law on May 30, 1854, establishing Nebraska Territory and Kansas Territory, and opening the area to broader settlement by White people. Kansas Territory stretched all the way to the Continental Divide and included the sites of present-day Denver, Colorado Springs, and Pueblo. These pioneer settlers had nothing much other than hard work, the promise of ownership of their land and the perception of freedom going for them. The fact that their entrance meant the exit of the Indians living there, was hardly mentioned in the Little House books.
Interpretation of both historical and fictional characters
In Caroline, the focus is almost exclusively on “Caroline Ingalls”. It is written from third-person perspective and is a detailed, continuous train-of-thought of this one woman. The thoughts and feelings of her husband and family are mentioned, but much less, by comparison. It is the world seen through her eyes, a woman from the Eastern United States who neither wanted nor accepted the wide open prairies – or the Indians who lived there. While her husband desired both, all she wanted was a house with doors and walls (windows an optional extra).
“She had accommodated so many trifling inconveniences over such a long time that she had not felt their accumulating weight. Now, so many lifted all at once that it seemed she might rise from the floor. If not for the inevitability of cooking supper over the campfire, she might have. But the campfire itself was more pleasant too, because of the house. Because of the house, outside and inside had become distinct from each other once more. It was a rich feeling, sitting outside after supper for no better reason than because they wanted to. It was something absurdly delightful in the knowledge that behind those walls their beds lay ready and waiting, with the nightclothes hanging neatly on their pegs.” (p.187)
Miller depicts “Caroline” as a sturdy person with glowing cheeks, long lashes and curly dark hair, and a little corseted waist, with a solemn, demure, contained manner. While she is fully aware of her husband’s masculine appeal, she is unaware of her own attractiveness and certainly had no mirror to gaze into.
“Caroline looked tentatively over the rim of the tub at the flat circle of water. Her own face looked back at her, just the same. [….] Whatever changes this journey had wrought in her, they had not yet broken her surface. Pleased, she smiled at herself and quickly blushed at the way her face bloomed back at her. Suddenly Caroline did not want to look away. The unexpected sweetness of her own modesty held her captive. This must be the smile that made Charles’s eyes twinkle so when he teased her. She could feel the familiar contours of it, but had never seen the rosy flush, nor the dark ruffle of lowered lashes. No wonder he showed her no mercy. Now she was much too pleased, and the charm of the reflection faded. Enough of that, then.” (p.163)
“Caroline” regards emotionalism and exhibitionism as both bad for one’s character and dangerous for the family’s security. She holds everything in, very rarely uttering exclamations of surprise, crying, or laughing. The scenes of love-making in the book are therefore also described with subtlety and discretion. As soon as she is pregnant, “Caroline” starts feeling the physical effects deeply in her gut and bones, and they are so raw that they are almost anathema to her nature and deportment. When things get really rough, like when “Caroline” gives birth to “Grace”, the involvement of the neighbour’s wife, as a midwife, are both a consolation and a constant source of embarrassment due to the personal nature of her assistance. The same visceral dread that she felt before the birth event comes over her again every time she encounters the Indians whose land the homesteaders have taken over.
“Charles could never share her sentiments towards the Indians. He could stand before an Indian man without feeling his viscera clench and his bowels shudder, without the fine hairs on every surface of his skin rising up in a feeble attempt at protection. Caroline’s body told her to be afraid, and she obeyed it; there need not be a reason. Charles’s did not. Caroline could not change his response to the presence of the Osages any more than she could change her own.” (p.337)
Fiction vs. history
Miller did thorough research into the period so that there are no anachronisms – and she thanks someone called Christopher Czajka who checked the book for authenticity. The text is rich with references to music, traditional celebrations, food, farming practices, fashion, etc. At the same time, she fictionalized enough of the times and the family that the reader stays engaged and interested.
Miller depicts “Charles” as someone whose blue eyes do a great deal of twinkling. She paints him as tall, sturdy, handsome, courageous, completely smitten with “Caroline”, and devoted to his family. “Charles”, like a hairy giant with sparkling eyes, able to charm the birds from the sky with his fiddle playing, is greatly admired and put on a pedestal by “Caroline”. “Charles” has no faults. To even contemplate that would put her marriage at risk. Where “Charles” goes, “Caroline” acquiesces and follows, sedately but with apprehension. “Charles” always knows best. Though the real Charles Ingalls did indeed look tall, blue-eyed and bearded, he was just an ordinary man who could never stay put in one place. Often the family had to pack up and leave because of natural disasters where they lived, or his fanciful plans that went wrong, or his financial difficulties. In this instance, the narrative has it that they left Kansas because the man who was supposed to buy their farm back in Wisconsin from them, reneged on the deal.
In her descriptions of the looks of the fictional “Caroline”, Miller adheres fairly closely to the existing photos of Caroline Ingalls – departing from the way she was depicted in the TV series and the children’s books. Caroline Ingalls was not blonde or glamorous, but rather tidy-looking, dark-haired and properly cinched-in and buttoned-up, both in lips and figure.
The novel is an interesting character study with depth and nuance – but “Caroline” is a character that is still very much a product of her times. Miller has not modernized her. It was a different time with different morals and social codes. People contained their feelings and their behaviour was disciplined. For instance, children were meant to be seen and not heard and God-fearing respectability was the basis of their existence. So when “Caroline” does feel fear, when all hell bursts loose and she has to fight to survive, and her usual stiff uprightness falls away, it is all the more shocking.
A respectful tribute
Caroline is another spin-off from the Little House books, but it is also a respectful tribute. Miller knew she was entering into much delved-into territory when she set out to write this. Some literary spin-offs have been successful in their own right, like Mrs. de Winter (1993) by Susan Hill, which is a sequel to Rebecca (1938) by Daphne du Maurier, which in turn is based very closely on Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847). Also, Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) by Jean Rhys, which is a prequel to Jane Eyre. This novel is very good in itself, and would have been even more enjoyable to read had one not had prior knowledge of the Little House phenomenon.
Miller really does have a sensitivity and vivid imagination that make her descriptions draw the reader in and empathize with the character of “Caroline”. She emphasizes her resilience, morality, modesty and restraint. These days, with people showing a tendency towards exhibitionism and emotional lability, a character like “Caroline”, who has an internal locus of approval, and for whom internal validation is sufficient, would seem almost alien. I found myself reminded of my grandmother, a stoic, quiet but good-natured woman who did not have an easy life, whom I wish that I had known better. Without people like the Ingalls family, and Caroline Ingalls, the U.S.A. would not be the highly developed, prosperous country that it is today. That is my takeaway from reading the book.
About the author
Sarah Miller has a fabulous website (really pretty!) with all kinds of useful resources and insights into how she ferrets out information and does her research. Officially, she began writing her first novel at ten years old, and has spent half her life working in libraries and bookstores. Sarah lives in Michigan with her family. She has written four novelizations of the lives of historical figures, including Caroline. Miss Spitfire (2010) is about Annie Sullivan, the pupil of Helen Keller. The Borden Murders (2016) is about Lizzie Borden and the murders of her father and mother in 1892. The Lost Crown (2012) is about the daughters of Tsar Nicolas II, the last Tsar of Russia, Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia.
More about the Little House heritage
The original eight Little House books published during the author’s lifetime are now in the public domain, since the 50-year period of copyright limitation has expired, but not the books that were published afterwards. Laura Ingalls Wilder died in 1957, Rose Wilder Lane in 1968. Go here for a list of the many books published after the first eight.