03 February 2011


Character Connection 20

Read about Deeba and other great characters
in this week's Character Connection post!

This week, I thought I'd try something a little different. We usually love characters for what they do in a story, but this week I feature a character who doesn't get to "do" anything at all.

And now I think the scare quotes in that last sentence should be around the word character. For she doesn't really act . . . and yet the story is not complete without her.

Mary Woodlawn
Caddie Woodlawn
by Carol Ryrie Brink

. . . Caddie's mood of vacant daydreaming had passed. Something in Hetty's face had started a whole train of unaccustomed thoughts. She stole occasional glances at the serious, round face, turned now across the farm toward the road which wound away in the distance. It was almost as if Caddie had never seen that little face before. Suddenly she understood for the first time that Hetty was all by herself. Minnie was too young, and Tom, Caddie and Warren had no room in their adventures for a tagging and tattling little sister. Was her eagerness to be the first to tell only her way of trying to make herself important in the eyes of all the selfish older people? If only little Mary had lived . . .

The first thing to know about the Woodlawns is that they're a very nice-sized family. Both parents are still living, and they are raising seven children. The eldest girl, Clara, is about fifteen or sixteen, and very close to her mother. Then come Tom, Caddie and Warren--thirteen, eleven and nine--who are also inseparable friends. Hetty is seven, so she's in the proverbial (if not literal) "middle" and always showing it. Last come Minnie, who seems to be about three or four, and Joe, who is still expecting some of his teeth. They're such a warm and wonderful group that you'd never guess that they were missing one member--and missing her very much.

Mary Woodlawn was born a few years after Hetty and died when she was still a baby. Her family knew her for only a very short time, the two youngest ones never getting to meet her at all, and the sibling she might have been closest to, had she survived, probably not even remembering her. And yet Mary's impact on the family--heck, her impact on the world--is as strong as if she had lived a hundred years.

It is for want of a sister that Hetty is so lonely--and so much of an attention seeking tattletale that Tom, Caddie and Warren leave her behind as a matter of principle. Which only serves to make her lonelier. And if you think about it, Hetty gets a real double-whammy here, because it is because of Mary's death that Mr. Woodlawn decides he doesn't want to risk losing Caddie as well--which makes him ask his wife to let Caddie play with the boys rather than be brought up like a lady with their other daughters. Some eleven-year-old girls don't mind playing at home with their seven-year-old sisters, but they don't usually have another option of hiking all over the Wisconsin frontier with two brothers who treat them like equals. (No contest, you know?)

But Hetty's woes, a hole that can never be filled, are only one side of the coin; on the other is a gift that keeps on giving. Caddie has Mary to thank for her wonderfully free childhood; Tom and Warren, for a great playmate they might otherwise have never had; and even the entire community, for a massacre that is prevented when Caddie, used to tramping about the woods and befriending the Indians, appoints herself an ambassador for peace.

In the context of family and real community, characters who don't live long enough to act are as important--and as irreplaceable--as the most energetic, efficient agents in the world.

Source: Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink


IntrovertedJen said...

Ooh, a character who isn't even present. Bodily, anyway. That has to be hard to pull off effectively. You've spent some time thinking about this post, haven't you? But you always do have thoughtful posts!

Enbrethiliel said...


I read Caddie Woodlawn years ago, and the scene in which Caddie looks at Hetty and thinks of Mary has stayed with me ever since. =)

Sometimes I read a book with a character who is so great that I can write a Character Connection post immediately, but I usually need my reads to simmer.

Thanks for your comment!

Lesa said...

I've read lots of Newberry winners but never heard of this book. I just spotted 4 on the shelf at my Tues library and thought: I think E posted about this book. Scurried to Shredded Cheddar to see-- Yep, the same book.

Looks good-- I want to read it. How did you read this book before the Little House books?

Enbrethiliel said...


That's a long story! You might want to make yourself a cuppa before I start . . .

Ready now? ;-) Okay!

When I was younger, the buyers and stock managers of the local bookstores weren't really very savvy when it came to ordering YA novels. They pretty much stuck to the Newbery winners and to familiar-sounding classics. That's why it took me so long to get to Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain and Susan Cooper's Dark is Rising Sequence: the stores carried only the Newbery winning novels in the series and not the rest of the books! (Wacky, aye?) It was the same case with the Little House books: they had Little House on the Prairie because the TV series was syndicated here in the 70s and it was still pretty well known; but they didn't have any of the other books.

Caddie Woodlawn, being a Newbery Award winning novel and a stand-alone, was easier to find and to start. Indeed, I had to get the first Prydain novel and the first Little House book from used bookstores--which actually ship the stuff over from the US instead of reselling books from us locals. But that doesn't also explain why I haven't started Little House in the Big Woods yet. I guess I'm just waiting for the right time! =P

(The state of the bookstores is obviously much better now. I don't think other young bookworms will have to go through what I did!)

Lesa said...

Thanks for explaining! Can't go too wrong with Newberry so at least you had quality! That would be annoying to not get the rest of a series though. I haven't read those series so will have to check them out.

I've been reading a newberry honor book at my Tues Library that is so good I can't stand it. I started wondering about all the other runners up-- checked wikipedia and all the winners and runners up are listed. Cool!

Enbrethiliel said...


Oooooh! Which book is that? If I haven't read it yet and it's that good, I'll have to get it, too!