Wednesday, April 26, 2006

What we're reading

I didn't read Caddie Woodlawn as a child, and I'm delighted to have found it now. Anne and Betsy are enjoying it immensely, and even Ramona, when read-aloud time is over, will suggest, "Let's play Caddie!"

Caddie was a real girl. She was the author's grandmother, who regaled her children and grandchildren with stories of her childhood on the frontier of Wisconsin in the 1860's. Her granddaughter, Carol Ryrie Brink, put the stories on paper and a classic was born. It's one I somehow missed when I was young, but I'm happy my kids won't be able to say the same. A mixture of adventure and humor, slices of life and childhood, Caddie also manages to weave in a serious treatment of relations between frontier settlers and Native Americans in a way that is sobering but not overwhelming. It was the springboard for an excellent discussion with the girls about prejudice and bigotry, and about the profound difference between defending oneself and initiating violence. Currently, we're at another turning point in the book: the Woodlawns have just gotten news that President Lincoln has been shot.

The illustrations, by Trina Schart Hyman, are lovely.

Caddie's been making such an impression around here that the kids are considering naming our next hamster after her.

Another amazing find is Only Opal: The Diary of a Young Girl. I can thank Ramona for plucking this off the shelf at the library and saying, "This looks good, Mommy." Indeed, it did, and it's far beyond good.

Based on the actual diary of Opal Whiteley, this picture book has been adapted by Jane Boulton, from her longer adaptation of Opal's diary. (I'll be searching for the extended version for Anne-with-an-e.) Opal was born around 1900, and began a diary when she was 5 or 6. The surviving entries are incredible. Opal saw the world with the eyes of a poet, despite her harsh upbringing. An orphan, she lives with a family in Oregon but quickly perceives that she is considered a nuisance. Opal receives only cold and callous treatment from her foster parents, but finds temporary friendship with a kind neighbor lady whom she calls "Dear Love" (the nickname Dear Love's husband has given her.) But, when her family prepares to move (as they did 19 times, to various lumber camps) she must tell Dear Love good-bye. We, with Dear Love, wipe a tear and say, "We will never forget you."

Opal finds solace and beauty in nature and in the books her parents left her. From these books, she discovers names for her friends: her pet mouse becomes Felix Mendelssohn, her calf is Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her favorite tree is christened Michael Raphael. The moment at which Michael Raphael is chopped down is heart-breaking, for Opal and for us.

Barbara Cooney's gorgeous illustrations convey the beauty in Opal's bleak world, a beauty that Opal's poet's heart could detect despite her unhappiness .

Only Opal, too, is a tribute to the power of books and a legacy of love. Opal observes:

Near the road grow many flowers.
I nod to them as I go by.
They talk in shadows.
And this I have learned:
Grownups do not know the language of shadows.
Angel Mother and Angel Father did know
and they taught me.
I think sometimes Kind God
just opens the gates of Heaven
and lets them come out
to be Guardian Angels for a while.

Ramona has already claimed Opal's book as her own (I see a purchase looming in our near future.) It's delightful to see her recognize Barbara Cooney's style from our beloved Miss Rumphius and it's also pretty darn cute to hear her call Dear Love "Heart Cakes."

These books belong in a pile of heart cakes -- the kind we'll keep forever.


love2learnmom said...

Great post! Caddie Woodlawn and Miss Rumphius are two of our VERY favorites. A few years ago we visited Caddie Woodlawn's house in western Wisconsin - it was a real treat! It's still very much off the beaten path.

Make sure you read the sequel too - Caddie Woodlawn's Family (originally titled Magical Melons) it's really good too!

love2learnmom said...

Oops. I meant to add - thanks for the recommendation of Only Opal. I'll definitely have to look for it.

Karen Edmisten said...

It's so good to know there's a sequel! We'll be looking for it.

I found a copy of Only Opal at last night .... :-)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the recommendation of Only Opal! We love Miss Rumphius, and I have been meaning to get Caddie Woodlawn. My husband likes reading frontier stories to the kids at night, and they are just coming off the Little House series. Right now they're reading a "boy" book -- have to alternate at our house!

Karen Edmisten said...

Miss Rumphius is wonderful, isn't it? My 3 year old recognizes lupines, thanks to Miss R. :-)

I think both the boys and girls at your house will love Caddie!

Becky said...

Oh! I've never heard of Only Opal, and I *adore* Barbara Cooney (I was born to early to enjoy her in my own childhood, so I've discovered her only with my own kids). Many, many thanks to Ramona!

Caddie, on the other hand, is an old childhood friend, and I introduced her to the kids last summer. My daughter and two sons thoroughly identified with Caddie and her brothers : )

Anonymous said...

I've never heard of Opal, either. Thank you for mentioning the book; I'm going to look for it at the library. We love us some Miss Rumphius and have a plan to sew lupine seeds around some unoccupied parts of the neighborhood.