Little House: The Caroline Years by Maria D. Wilkes and Celia Wilkins
Recommended for: All Ages
Meet Caroline Quiner, the little girl who would grow up to be Laura Ingall's mother. "Little House in Brookfield" is the first in an ongoing series about the adventures of another girl from America's favorite pioneer family. It's 1845 in the bustling frontier town of Brookfield, Wisconsin. Five-year-old Caroline lives in a frame house at the edge of town with her mother, her grandmother, and her five brothers and sisters. Caroline's father was lost at sea the year before, and the close-knit family is struggling to cope without him. Each day brings Caroline new responsibilities and new adventures as she strives to help Mother all she can. And though this first year on their own also brings Caroline and her family great hardship, they survive with courage and love.
Little House was a literary staple of my childhood. Naturally the Laura books were first. I have vague but good memories of my dad reading about Pa's encounter with the "bear" that turned out to be a tree stump. But the books that were my favorites were The Caroline Years about Ma as a little girl. It's a little hard to see in the picture (yes, that is my set, not quite complete, which I'll explain later), but especially the first two books are well worn. I read them so much that, even not having touched them except to make more room on my bookshelf in years, when I reread them in the summer of 2012 (the same summer I wrote The Experiment) they were as familiar to me as if I had only just read them.
The first two were the most read. I unfortunately haven't been able to confirm how old I was when I got my first one, but I think I was about five because I seem to remember being Caroline's age. I'm pretty sure I started my collection in the house we moved from when I was six and a half, because I'm fairly certain that it was in that house that I danced around singing, "Martha and Charlie, the new Carpenters," after my mom looked it up and discovered that Martha Quiner did indeed marry Charlie Carpenter.
The series is based on letters written to Laura by Caroline's sister Martha. Ma apparently didn't talk much about her childhood, so Laura wrote her aunt asking her to "tell the story of those days." It is historical fiction, but closely based on Martha's memories.
I did also particularly like On Top of Concord Hill, I admit, probably because they all came down with cholera in the second half of the book. There are a lot of struggles, particularly with Henry, at their mother's marriage to Mr. Holbrook. I do have a theological caution with this book, though. In the chapter "Secrets," Caroline is bothered by the camp meeting preacher, a major fire and brimstone preacher. She confesses to her mother that she accidentally overheard a conversation between her mother and Mr. Holbrook and was afraid she is doomed to Hell because of it. Mother assures her that it's okay, because she didn't mean to. (This is the context of the issue I have.) This is the issue. Caroline is afraid she is a sinner. Rather than telling her that, yes, she is, we all are, but Jesus died to save us from our sins, Mother tells her that she is not sinful and she is a good girl, thus banishing all Caroline's fears about sin and Hell. So I would recommend having a conversation about that with your child/younger sibling to ensure they do not develop a works based view of salvation.
You might notice Little City by the Lake looks brand new. Well, that's because I only read it twice. Know why? Caroline is 15! And then she turns 16! When I was younger, I couldn't stand for characters to grow up, and apparently 15 was my limit. When I read it when I was 16, I really enjoyed it. But it wasn't until then I discovered there was a seventh book in the series: A Little House of Their Own. It's the only one I don't have, though I want it. I discovered it at the library looking for books for my sister. It takes things from Caroline's schoolteaching through her courtship with Charles Ingalls. I can't remember when the story itself stops, but it contains an epilogue which takes the events up to the beginning of Little House in the Big Woods. At age 16, I really, really loved that book, though I doubt I would have at a younger age. I did have two quibbles with it. First, Caroline told her students that America is a democracy when really we are a representative republic. Pet peeve. The other one I forgot, so it must not have been too important.
The Caroline Years are an excellent supplement to the original Little House books, and a great standalone series as well. The tales of pioneer life are both heartbreaking and inspiring, with a good dash of humor as well. An excellent series for readers of all ages.