Sunday, February 14, 2010

Who's Cribbing from Whom?

Ok, I'm kidding with that title. I recently finished reading Caddie Woodlawn for the first time. How did a girl who loved pioneer stories as much as I did as a child grow into adulthood without reading this book?!! Well, that's a question for another time. My point tonight is to talk about the similarities I kept noticing between Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink and the Little House book series by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

There were a number of events that happened to the girls in both stories - a prairie fire, encounters with the Indians, interaction with a overly prim girl, an unruly student who threatened to disrupt the school, the disappearance of a beloved dog, a potentially life-threatening dunk in a body of water. I know it's not the case, but it's almost like one author was copying ideas from the other. I checked the publication dates, and it's sort of ironic, I think, that both Caddie Woodlawn and Little House on the Prairie were published in 1935. There just must have been certain experiences that were common in pioneer communities. Some, like the prairie fires, were due to the landscape; some, like the encounters with the Indians, were due to the proximity of the different cultures; some, like prim cousin Anabelle and snotty Nellie Olsen, are just a part of human nature, regardless of the time or place.

The thing that is interesting is the way the different authors develop these similar experiences. Let's just use as an example the threat of a possible Indian attack. Here's an excerpt from Caddie Woodlawn:

"After dark, sentries were stationed about the farmhouse to keep watch during the night, and the women and children made their beds on the floor of the parlor, after the bedrooms were filled. No one undressed that night, and fires were kept burning in the kitchen and dining room for the men to warm by when they changed their sentry duty. Windows were shuttered and lanterns covered or shaded when carried outside. A deep silence settled over the farm. They did not wish to draw the Indians' attention by needless noise or light."

Now, here's an excerpt from Little House on the Prairie:
"Laura crept out of bed and huddled against Ma's knee. And Mary, left all alone, crept after her and huddled close, too. Pa stayed by the window, watching."
"The drums seemed to beat in Laura's head. They seemed to beat deep inside her. The wild, fast yipping yells were worse than wolves. Something worse was coming, Laura knew it. Then it came - the Indian war-cry."
"A nightmare is not so terrible as that night was. A nightmare is only a dream, and when it is worst you wake up. But this was real and Laura could not wake up. She could not get away from it."
"When the war-cry was over, Laura knew it had not got her yet. She was still in the dark house and she was pressed close against Ma."

I enjoyed Caddie Woodlawn, and I will definitely be recommending it to my 11-year-old daughter. But I have to admit, I like Laura Ingalls Wilder's version of the pioneer life better. Her description makes me feel like I was right there, hearing that terrifying cry in the dark. I guess that's the difference between telling about your own pioneer experience (which Wilder was doing) and telling the stories of someone else's experience passed down to you (which Brink was doing).


Annie said...

But it's all in the writing, isn't it? Laura Ingalls Wilder was a wonderful writer. I'm sure it helped her that she had experienced the things she was describing, but a fiction writer should be able to enter into the mind of a character in any situation. In "Caddie Woodlawn" I wanted to know: what did it feel like? were the children scared? excited? a bit of both? Was it cold sleeping on the floor? uncomfortable? I wanted snatches of conversation and movement. Maybe it happens later - I confess I haven't read the book.

Augustina Peach said...

Well, yes. You've opened the door I was determined I wasn't going to open, because I seem to harp on it rather often. "Caddie Woodlawn" tells us what happened; "Little House on the Prairie" shows us what happened and lets us feel it along with the characters. In my opinion, that always makes for superior writing and a more satisfying reading experience.

Thanks for the comment - It's nice to know someone else agrees with my "show, don't tell" crusade, ha ha!