Rereading “Caddie Woodlawn” by Carol Ryrie Brink

caddie woodlawnBrink, Carol Ryrie. Caddie Woodlawn
Original publication date: 1935
rpt. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007
eISBN 978–1–4424–6858–0

Part of the charm of rereading, as an adult, books that I read as a child is understanding and appreciating how I must have reacted to the books back then. I didn’t remember much about Caddie Woodlawn when I put it on my Classics Club reading list except that I enjoyed it. Now I see why.

Carol Ryrie Brink based the book, and the character of Caddie, on her grandmother’s stories about her own childhood. The book opens in 1864 with a description of 11-year-old Caddie Woodlawn, “as wild a little tomboy as ever ran the woods of western Wisconsin.” Caddie and her sister Mary had both been frail and sickly when the family first came to Wisconsin from Boston seven years earlier. After Mary died, Mr. Woodlawn told his wife, “I want you to let Caddie run wild with the boys. Don’t keep her in the house learning to be a lady. I would rather see her learn to plow than make samplers, if she can get her health by doing so. I believe it is worth trying.” So Caddie was allowed to run free with her brothers, Tom and Warren, all over the area surrounding their farm.

Their adventures would have appealed to me because, as a young child, I also spent much of my time exploring the world around me in a small, rural New England town. I didn’t have siblings to accompany me, but some of my happiest memories are of sitting in the crotch of an apple tree below my house during apple blossom time and watching the bees buzz among the flowers. I also often tried to catch field mice in the unmown meadow with a coffee can, but I never succeeded. My parents had a troubled marriage, and I learned to take refuge outdoors.

Another feature of this book that would have appealed to me was the strong family life it portrays. I did not share that experience with Caddie’s family, and throughout my childhood I was drawn to books and television shows that offered alternate visions of what family life could be like.

Rereading the book now, I wonder how I reacted to the gender message that it carries. Although Caddie’s adventures appealed to me, I probably simply glossed over the gender issues. Children’s books entertain while at the same time imparting the message of what one’s society considers proper behavior, especially which behaviors are proper for boys and which for girls.
Other members of society question Mr. Woodlawn’s approach to raising Caddie along with the boys. Early in the book the visiting circuit preacher asks, “When are you going to begin making a young lady out of this wild Indian, Mrs. Woodlawn?”

Significantly, Caddie turns 12 during the year of the book’s narrative, the traditional age of puberty that marks the progression into adulthood. After her birthday the gender message intensifies. Near the end of the book, Caddie’s mother punishes her for treating a visiting cousin badly, while the boys, who also participated, go free. Later Mr. Woodlawn “thrashes” the boys because he thinks it only fair that they share in the punishment, since he has raised Caddie, Tom, and Warren the same way.

Then father explains to Caddie:

It’s a strange thing, but somehow we expect more of girls than of boys. It is the sisters and wives and mothers, you know, Caddie, who keep the world sweet and beautiful. What a rough world it would be if there were only men and boys in it, doing things in their rough way! A woman’s task is to reach them gentleness and courtesy and love and kindness. It’s a big task, too, Caddie—harder than cutting trees or building mills or damming rivers. It takes nerve and courage and patience, but good women have those things. They have them just as ich as the men who build bridges and carve roads through the wilderness. A woman’s work is something fine and noble to grow up to, and it is just as important as a man’s. But no man could ever do it so well.”

You will not find a better description than this of the Victorian notion of separate spheres of life for men and women. This notion prescribed that business, finance, and politics were men’s world, while home and church constituted women’s world. There could be no overlap in these spheres of distinction. This concept also gave rise to the view of woman as a tender flower who had to be protected from the unsavory aspects of the world. This view conveniently kept women in their place and kept men in charge.

Like other young girls, I would have unconsciously and unquestioningly absorbed this vision of reality as truth. Caddie certainly does. After her father’s talk, she falls asleep.

When she awoke she knew that she need not be afraid of growing up. It was not just sewing and weaving and wearing stays. It was something more thrilling than that. It was a responsibility, but, as Father spoke of it, it was a beautiful and precious one, and Caddie was ready to go and meet it.

Thank you, Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, for shattering the notion of that view of life as a “thrilling responsibility, beautiful and precious,” that all girls should rush forward to meet as they grow up.

The 2 Lessons I’ve Learned So Far from My Blog Challenge

The first three months are in the books, one-quarter of the year done. I’ve posted reports for each of the first three months with all kinds of numbers. But the most important lessons don’t lie in the statistics.

Beyond the numbers, so far I’ve learned two lessons from writing a blog post every day.

1. Writing daily makes writing easier.

Writing is a skill, just like playing the piano or kicking a soccer ball: The more you practice, the better you get. And the better you get, the easier the task becomes.

When I undertook this challenge, the first question I wanted to answer was whether I could find something to write about EVERY SINGLE DAY. I found that I could if I just paid attention to the whole world around me. Having to write about something forces me to find out more about the subject than I otherwise would. It makes me look at the subject in detail instead of simply glancing over it.

An example of this is the post Tacoma’s Daffodil Princesses. From my first two springs here in Tacoma I knew that the Daffodil Festival occurs every year and is a newsworthy event. But I didn’t know exactly what it is or why it’s so important. This year, when I saw the event in the newspaper once again, I decided to do some research and find out more about it. I learned that the festival celebrates the agricultural heritage of the region and is a display of community history and pride.

With a little research, which I love doing, I not only had my blog post for the day but also learned a bit of local history as well.

2. The easier writing is, the more difficult it becomes.

The truth of this paradox arises from the second question I wanted to answer when I undertook this challenge: Could I break free from my personal guardedness to explore the depths of my own life and discover a sense of purpose? I have therefore started working on vertical writing, personal writing aimed at going more deeply into the self.

The problem with writing that comes easily is that it’s so seductive. That post about the Daffodil Princesses was easy to write. A quick Google search, a little aggregation and organization, and I had it, the day’s required blog post. Press “publish,” add the word count to my Excel file, and I’m done. Easy peasy.

Too easy. Because what that post about the Daffodil Princesses doesn’t contain is how I felt about the topic. When I first arrived in Tacoma two years ago and read about the Daffodil Festival in the newspaper, I chuckled. I thought this festival sounded like some quaint local custom. I admit it: the whole thing sounded a bit silly to me. I felt a little superior, someone who wasn’t caught up in the festival tradition and could therefore see it for what it truly is: an amusing trifle not worthy of all the press coverage it gets.

And then I did the research. I discovered that, rather than being a silly trifle, this festival is an agricultural celebration deeply rooted in the local land. The annual festival celebrates not only one of the major crops of this area, but also the community that the crop sustains. This festival is no different from the nearly universal celebrations that communities put on in the fall to celebrate harvest; this one just happens to occur in the spring, at the beginning of the growing season, because that’s when daffodils bloom. Because they are among the earliest spring flowers, they suggest rebirth, the new growth after the bleakness of winter.

This local Daffodil Festival is no amusing little shindig. It’s an archetypal celebration of human community and appreciation of the land.

Who did I think I was?

I hope I’ve learned not to make that mistake again.

Working on Vertical Writing

Gestation of Ideas: On Vertical Writing and Living

Nick Ripatrazone discusses vertical writing, a concept he learned from writer Andre Dubus’s essay “The Habit of Writing,” which appeared in the anthology On Writing Short Stories, edited by Tom Bailey. Dubus writes that, instead of trying to force stories into being, he gives ideas time to gestate until the story emerges. As the anthology title says, Dubus is referring to his writing of fiction. However, giving the creative process time to work by allowing ideas to gestate also benefits nonfiction writers. Therefore, I’ve been trying to apply what Ripatrazone describes here to my own writing.

Dubus defines vertical writing by contrasting it to horizontal writing. In this passage, Ripatrazone describes the difference:

Horizontal writing is focused on amassing pages and words. When Dubus wrote horizontally, he wrote convinced that fiction was created through aggregation. Vertical writing, in contrast, values depth over breadth. Stories are written when they are ready to be written; they are not forced into existence by planning or excessive drafting. Horizontal writing seeks to move across the page; vertical writing seeks to dig into the page … . Curiously enough, by seeking to undermine the stereotype that writing is the result of inspiration, writers have fallen for the other, no less romantic opposite: that writing is factory work, and daily devotion is rewarded with final drafts. Both approaches are magical thinking. Vertical writing is no less work, but it is better work, work at the right time. It requires patience in the willingness to wait for a story to feel ready to be written, as well as the attention and focus necessary to inhabit the story once gestated.

Replace fiction and story with something like essay, piece, or work, and you have something that applies to nonfiction as well.

In my years of studying English, I learned to write literary criticism that removed any trace of personal interaction with the texts I read. Such academic writing is horizontal writing, and I became quite good at it. I can organize, analyze, and argue logically until the cows come home. But eventually that kind of writing wasn’t enough for me. I decided in my late 50s to go back to school to study psychology, and I ended up focusing on life stories. Life writing, by definition, demands personal involvement. Switching from my ingrained habit of impersonal writing to more personal, intimate writing has been a major challenge for me.

This concept of vertical writing gives me a new way to look at what I’m now working on, writing that values depth over breadth. After so many years of keeping myself at (my own) arm’s length, I’m trying to learn to drill down rather than expand sideways, to go deeper and see what I can learn about my world and myself. I never know what I truly think or believe about something until I’ve written my way through it.

I’m in a different place in my life than Ripatrazone is in his. Because he teaches high school English and has twin daughters just under two years old, he does not have a lot of time to write. He says that focusing on vertical writing has allowed him to use his writing time with more satisfaction than before:

A vertical writing life is no easy life, but it is deeper, more worthwhile. I feel like I have more ownership over what I create. I am no longer concerned with numbers; no more spreadsheets of magazines that I hope to conquer as if publishing was a territorial battle. Writing is the slowest of games, the most methodical of the arts. Its parts are nearly infinite; its wholes cannot be tricked into existence.

His references to numbers and spreadsheets pulled me up short, because I’ve been carefully using Excel to track my output since I began my challenge of writing a blog post every day in 2015. After three months, I had just about convinced myself not to worry so much about the numbers. I will continue to record my numbers (because, after all, we live in the era of Big Data), but I’m not going to fixate on them so much.

I’m going to concentrate more on the writing than on the recording of numbers, because:

Vertical writing is not easy… . It is very possible, very easy, to be owned by our goals. To be owned by our next book. To be owned by the feeling that we are competing with a world that outmatches us. Vertical writing — vertical living — has convinced me otherwise. It has reminded me why I began to write as a child: the joy of discovery, the surprise of creation, the power of imagination. When I used to write horizontally, I filled boxes with chicken-scratched, multiple drafts. I was concerned with speed and number, acceptances and rejections. Now I am concerned with depth and discovery, and the result is that I live with stories in a deeper way.

I need to focus on living with my own writing in a deeper way.

Blog a Day Challenge: March Report

Here are my statistics for March:

Number of posts written: 31

Shortest post: 220

Longest post: 2,150

Total words written: 23,345

Average post length: 753

Distribution of posts across my three blogs:

The total of posts here may not equal the number of posts written last month because I occasionally publish the same post on more than one blog. However, I have included each post only once in my total word count.

Last month’s featured post:

On Rereading “Anne of Green Gables”

This post generated a lot (well, a lot for me) of “favorites” and retweets on Twitter. At first I thought that might have happened because the use of the Classics Club hashtag targeted the post to a specific audience. But I published another review with the same hashtag within just a few days of this one, and the second one did not receive the same reaction.

So I’m guessing that the personal orientation of this post caused the increased reaction. The other Classics Club post was a straight book review, but this one emphasized my personal reaction to how reading the book now, as an older adult, affected me differently than had reading it as a child.

What I Learned in March

In February I focused on post length. In March I decided not to worry about length. Instead, I concentrated on writing however many words were necessary to cover each post’s topic. Here are the results of that change of focus:

  • My total words written increased by 2,890.
  • My average post length increased by 93.
  • My number of posts of 1,000 or more words increased from 6 to 9.

The lesson I take from these statistics is that I should worry about each individual post and let the word count fall wherever it may.

The second lesson, which I take from the relative popularity of the post about rereading Anne of Green Gables, is that I should strive to incorporate more personal storytelling into my writing. I knew that, of course, at least in theory. That is why I chose story as my word for this year. But the interest in this post reinforced the lesson for me.

I continue to read more blog posts than I did before starting this blog post a day challenge. From now on I’ll make a more conscious effort to look at which ones most engage me and to learn how and why they do.

Blog a Day Challenge: February Report

January was all about convincing myself that I could indeed find something to write about and produce a blog post every day.

In February I turned my gaze outward and looked at other blogs and bloggers instead of just my blog/myself as blogger. I found a number of blogs that I learned a lot from. I also began reading more articles online about how and why to blog.

Here are my stats for February:

Number of posts written: 31

Shortest post: 215

Longest post: 1,880

Total words written: 20, 455

Average post length: 660

Distribution of posts across my three blogs:

The total of posts here may not equal the number of posts written last month because I occasionally publish the same post on more than one blog. However, I have included each post only once in my total word count.

What I Learned in February

  • Despite February’s being three days shorter than January, I wrote the same number of posts, 31, this month as last. However, my total word count in February was 1,340 more than in January. My average post length went up, from 617 in January to 660 in February. And my longest post in February was 520 words longer than its counterpart in January.
  • One thing I was surprised to learn in my reading about blogging is that some people advocate writing posts longer than the 500–750 words I had long ago read was the optimal post length. So instead of trying to limit myself to 500–750 words, I tried to write longer rather than shorter in February. In January I wrote only four posts of 1,000 words or longer, whereas in February I wrote six posts of 1,000 words or more. But I’m still not convinced that more than 1,000 words is an optimal post length. I’m more comfortable with posts of about 800 words. Although there will inevitably be shorter posts, I’m going to work on writing more posts of about 800 words from now on. And I’m going to think of posts of more than 1,000 words as occasional occurrences, when the subject warrants, rather than as ideals to aim for.

Last month’s featured posts:

1. An Ode to My Bracelet, in Memory of Frayne

Over the last two weeks of February I participated in the WordPress Writing 201: Poetry course. I learned a heck of a lot, even though grinding out a poem that fulfilled three specified criteria didn’t always produce top-quality results. But I’m happy enough with this one to share it.

2. What Your Favorite Books Tell You About Your Writing

Most writers are also avid readers, because the only way to learn about good writing is to read a lot of writing by others. This exercise helps writers to discover what their own areas of passion are by analyzing the books that appeal to them the most. I found it an invaluable discovery.

What advice do you have for me about blogging? I’d especially like to hear your thoughts on the best length for a post.

WordPress Writing 201: Poetry Class, Day 10

It’s the final day of this course, Day 10, which offers the following challenges:

  • Prompt: future
  • Form: sonnet
  • Device: chiasmus

Sonnet

A sonnet is normally composed of 14 lines of verse.

There are several ways you can split your sonnet into stanzas (if you wish to), though the most common ones are 8–6 and 4–4–3–3.

Likewise, if you decide to use rhyme in your sonnet, you can choose between various rhyming schemes, like ABAB BCBC CDCD EE, ABAB CDCD EFEF GG, or ABBA ABBA CDC DCD, among others.

At their best, something happens between the first and last verse, and especially between the first eight and final six lines. You want your reader to have experienced something more than just a brief sonic pleasure. You want to present a fully-formed thought.

Chiasmus

At its simplest, a chiasmus is essentially a reversal, an inverted crossing (it got its name from the greek letter chi – X)… From a fairly straightforward reordering of words — where A and B are repeated as B and A — a chiasmus can develop into more complex structures: instead of words, phrases. Instead of phrases, ideas or concepts. Chiasmus is effective in poems because it’s a form of repetition — and by now we all now how crucial repetition is for poetry. But the reversal injects the repeated words with freshness, and allows us to play with (and radically change) the meaning of a line.

Writing Process

I had seen today’s assignment last night, so when I came across this article, I knew it had to be my future subject.

A Brave New World?

In an article in The Guardian a doctor announces,
“Full-body transplants could take place in just two years.”
Italian surgeon Sergio Canavero says he should be able
To graft a living person’s head onto a donated body.

This procedure could prolong the lives of people with terminal illness,
Canavero says, and he’s developing a program
To train neurosurgeons to do the complex surgery
Necessary to make the procedure work.

Forget the complex surgery. What would it be like
To wake up inside a brand new body? Would the brain
Think it lived inside an alien creature?

And what about the consciousness that once belonged to the grafted brain?
Would it still retain its sense of identity?
The brain does not = consciousness, nor does consciousness = the brain.

WordPress Writing 201: Poetry Class, Day 9

Right up front, let me admit that today, Day 9, is the one day I allowed myself to bail on, as I’ll explain in the section labeled Writing Process below.

Today’s parameters are:

  • Prompt: landscape
  • Form: found poetry
  • Device: enumeratio

Found Poetry

Like a blackmail letter in a sordid crime novel, a found poem is made up of words and letters others have created. It’s up to you, the poet, to find them (hence the name), extract them, and rejig them into something else: your poem.

Enumeratio

it basically means constructing a list, a successive enumeration (duh!) of multiple elements in the same series.

Writing Process

I was initially completely flummoxed on how to go about using found poetry on a computer screen or on a blog. What is the digital equivalent of cutting words out of the newspaper and pasting them onto a blank sheet of paper.

So I used the suggested tool poetweet, which allows you to fill in your Twitter name and then creates a poem (I chose a sonnet) from your tweets. Here’s what I got:

Mail Online

Residue of design.” – John Milton
Cities Grew Much Like Modern Ones
With “that dreadful Terry Eagleton”
View Us “As a Joke” | Mother Jones

Of Rooting for Love – The Atlantic
Especially for introverts – CNET
Writing Is Therapeutic |
Genre help save the planet?

Avoid frailty by rebuilding muscle
Organ Transplants, Experts Estimate
Fiction e-book | Cornell Chronicle

Dark of the Moon by John Sandford
She doesn’t need from a director
Wolf Meta: The Evolution of a Word

Well, OK, but what am I supposed to do with that?

As I was trying to devise some way to handle today’s assignment, a minor crisis occurred here at home—nothing dire, but quite time-consuming. By the time I finished dealing with that, it was time for dinner.

I took this occurrence as a sign that I just wasn’t cut out for this particular exercise in the first place. But I did learn what enumeratio is.

WordPress Writing 201: Poetry Class, Day 8

Today’s Day 8 assignment involves:

  • Prompt: drawer
  • Form: ode
  • Device: apostrophe

Ode

An ode is a laudatory poem celebrating a person, an object, a place, etc. It can come in any form these days, having shed its ancient (and much stricter) formal requirements.

At their best, odes are both a compelling portrait of something and an investigation (tacit or explicit) of the poet’s own relation to that thing.

For your poem today, focus on details — the things that make your chosen object unique — but also on the effect it produces on others (you or someone else).

Apostrophe

apostrophe (a-POS-truh-fee) … occurs when the speaker in the poem addresses another person or an object (usually personified) directly.

You can write a poem that is made up entirely of one extended apostrophe, or switch back and forth between addressing your reader and addressing someone (or something) else.

What tone and flavor will you choose for your apostrophe? Will it be plaintive, nostalgic, angry, admiring? The way you shape your address will greatly influence the feel of your poem.

Writing Process

One way to go about composing your ode would be, first, to make a list of the qualities and details you’d like to highlight, and then try to work them into a poem, crossing off those you’ve covered. Another: write as if you’re shooting a movie, following the subject of your ode from top to bottom, from left to right, etc.

My first task is to choose an object to center on. I chose the inscribed bracelet that I put on every morning because of its association with a friend of mine and also because I take it out of the drawer of my nightstand to put it on (clever incorporation of the prompt drawer).

bracelet

(The photo is the best I could do at the office with my phone.)

Here are the qualities and details of the bracelet that I’d like to highlight:

  • gold
  • inscription
  • scratched from long usage

An Ode to My Bracelet, in Memory of Frayne

Every morning after I’m showered and dressed
I open my nightstand drawer,
And take out my jewelry: a watch, three rings,
And you, my beloved gold bracelet.

You’re golden, just like Frayne,
My friend in whose memory I wear you.
She wore your sister in silver
Because she believed the inscription.

“Forever is now” she wanted to stress.
Her cancer advancing, she wanted to
Appreciate each day that she had left
And live it to the fullest.

She did. And now the scratches on you
Remind me of how very many days
I’ve worn you since…
Forever. Now. Always.

WordPress Writing 201: Poetry Class, Day 7

Here’s the assignment for Day 7:

  • Prompt: fingers
  • Form: prose poetry
  • Device: assonance

Prose Poetry

A prose poem is any piece of verse written using the normal typography of prose, while still maintaining elements of poetry, like rhythm, imagery, etc.

The words may be arranged typographically like any piece of prose, but the sounds, the rhythms, and the imagery all pull us in the direction of poetry.

Since you can’t use the page (or screen) the same way you do with regular verse — you simply write to the end of each line — the power of the language needs to come through via other channels: repetition, well-chosen consonants, striking similes and metaphors, or any other device you feel might tip the scale toward poetry.

Assonance

the strategic repetition of vowels in close proximity to each other.

Writing Process

I can’t document why I wrote about this topic because it came to me unawares, as so often happens when I read or think about something, then leave it to percolate while I move on to something else.

But here’s an interesting aside: As a result of this course, I’m beginning to think sometimes in rhyming couplets. I thought prose poetry would be relatively easy to write because of the lack of constricting form. But the rhyming couplets keep coming out to play, making the writing sound more like traditional poetry than prose poetry.

Go figure.

Remembrances

This photo album in my lap contains memories from times past. As my fingers turn the pages I focus on the faces of those whom I’ll never see again anywhere but here.

My father is here. The fading photos mirror my fading memories of someone who died just before I turned twelve. The earliest photos, from before I was born, show him happy, handsome in his Navy uniform. Then a few show him holding me, a tiny baby. In several more I’m two or three. My father appears in only black and white, the fate of someone who died before the common use of color photography.

Grandma T., who helped raise me, is here as well. In black and white she and Grandpa stand outside the farmhouse in upstate New York, where I spent the happiest two years of my childhood life. Grandpa died early, but Grandma lived long enough to appear in color before she disappears.

My in-laws are here, too, the ones who showed me that marriage could be a bond forged in loving harmony. Their love and acceptance shaped the adult this adolescent me grew up to be and altered my view of family. They’re preserved in color photography.

And friends appear here. Anne and Frayne, the two who, for me, remain the touchstone of my definition of friend. Both lost within ten months, but here, in color, they continue to smile at me.

My fingers close this book of the people who’ve turned my world from black and white into colorful remembrances of life.