Caroline Ingalls and me

Funny how a character from a book can grab you in childhood and never ever leave you.  I found myself thinking again about the Laura Ingalls books the other day, and wondered what had so captivated me about those books.  First I thought maybe it was Laura.  Definitely there were times in my early life where I felt like I fit awkwardly into my world, which was also a common feeling of Laura’s.

Charles and Caroline Ingalls

But thinking deeper, I realized that it was actually Caroline Ingalls who made the biggest impact on my adult life.  She was always making the best of her circumstances, adding beauty to her home in all sorts of ways, and encouraging her family to learn and to be graceful and courageous in the midst of challenge.

One of the stories that comes back to me often is the way she used carrot juice to color winter-pale butter.  She got the juice by grating a carrot over an old tin pan pierced with nails, and then wrapping the carrot bits in cloth and squeezing the juice out.  She wanted her butter to be pretty even in the winter time.

There are stories of her making over dresses, and telling her girls stories from her childhood, and putting colored ribbons in her girls’ hair, and teaching them to read from the two books that they owned.  She treasured a little china doll that she kept on a pretty shelf, and was dismayed at first by living in the sod house built into a hill on the banks of Plum Creek.  Then, just like always, she squared her shoulders and made the best of it.

The book most memorable to me and my very favorite was ‘The Long Winter”.  Caroline had to call on every skill to help her family through that terrible winter. They ground wheat in a coffee grinder, and burned hay in the wood stove when the firewood was gone, and barely, barely lived through those long cold days.

It was not til adulthood that I understood another, equally powerful strength that Caroline possessed.  She was able to love her husband well, and support and treasure him even as he carried his family hither and yon to all the different places they lived during Laura’s childhood.  Charles was a dreamer, a restless soul, and (I think) not always a good decision-maker.  Very often he asked his family to move right as life was getting easier for Caroline– when the garden was getting productive and the children were enjoying school and the well had been dug and the house was cozy and warm.

How hard it must have been for Caroline to acquiesce to each move gracefully, to trust her husband’s judgement though she knew his decisions often brought her family great challenge.  Of course it was a different time, one where men were expected to lead and women just followed.  And Laura probably omitted some of the hard moments and hard conversations that his decisions sparked.

But what I read in those books, even now as an adult, is strength and grace and a powerfully honoring way about her.  I think it was she who helped him be the best man that he could be.

In my mind, she’s the real heroine in the Laura Ingalls books, possessing both skills that I’ve worked to cultivate and others that I don’t remotely yet have a grasp on.  I’m glad to have had such a strong woman to inhabit my mind, both in my childhood and even now that I’m all grown up.

What about you?  Do characters in childhood books still live in your mind?


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  1. Priscilla Mumea says:

    I love this. I had never considered this point of view before. When I read this series aloud to my kids coming up I will be thinking of your perspective.

  2. How funny to get home and find this blog post on my FB and the ‘new’ Laura Ingalls Wilder book, Pioneer Girl, An Annotated Biography, on my doorstep. I love everything ‘Laura’ and am so excited to start reading the book tonight. I’ve been waiting for what seems like forever for the book to arrive. I love your perspective on Caroline. She has always been someone for me to look to and gain wisdom. I am actually reading the ‘Little House’ books as a family read to my last two children, boys ages 11 and 12. They are loving them every bit as much as when we read them when they were much younger. Boy, girl, young, or old, the ‘Little House’ books draw you in and speak to your heart. They remind you of the importance of family and being cheerful even under the most dire circumstances. Love them all!

  3. I have always loved the Little House books and I remember all those things you mentioned about Caroline too! She always seemed to find the best in everything and was a peaceful person. I’ve read the books several times and I might just have to read them again after seeing your post! ~~Pam

  4. I completely agree! We are currently reading through the series (Farmer Boy, at the moment) and loving it. I am continually amazed and inspired by their fortitude and resourcefulness. Interspersed with stories of courage and hard work, there is always humor…I hope my children will someday say the same of their memories. (Minus the 40-below temperatures!)

  5. Y our commentary reminds me not of another book, but my own family of childhood. I so admire
    and love my mom for what she went through. And not even complaining to us kids.
    I was born in 1946, in Mt. Had an older brother. Younger sister. Moved from Mt. to S.Dakota at 2-4 yrs. Moved to
    N. Dak. at 5 yrs. Back to Mt . at 6 yrs. To Oregon at 7, Then in 1954-55 to Calif. All this time my Mom
    was teaching school and taking care of our family. Dad was restless, and always looking for something better. AT 46, my Mom had another baby boy. In 1956, with 4 kids, we moved to Dillon,MT
    where my parents both taught part-time, and finished their Bachelors Degree, Mom was 48 and Dad,
    55, when we moved back to N.Dak. to live there for 4 years. Then to Oregon , where we finally settled down and had some stability in our living situation…Mom, with grace and dignity, through times of sorrow and hardship, never complained and always tried to have an optimistic attitude.
    My parents lives remind me of the hard times they lived through….living in primitive conditions while teaching on an Indian reservation, cooking on wood stoves, cooking breakfast for reservation children so they wouldn’t be hungry while they tried to learn…This was all before they
    had their own family…..My parents were natives of the prairie country just like the Ingalls. My child
    hood favorite book series was the Laura Ingalls Wilder series….I used to look for small hillsides in the prairie country, to see if a “dug-out” home could have been built there……thank you for
    allowing me to honor my parents,through your response column.
    mm, vancouver, wa.

    • there is amazing power in being willing to see the good in life, isn’t there? I am in awe of people who do it well. They give their families such a gift.

  6. I was wondering if you’d read the new Laura Ingalls biography — I haven’t yet, but I’m sure the details will make me admire Caroline’s stamina and courage even more. I don’t think I would’ve been as gracefully accepting of Charles uprooting the family all the time, however . . . but that may just be me viewing life through the eyes of a 20th/21st century woman.

  7. Gina Comer says:

    Oh, yes! And Lucy from the Chronicles of Narnia. Forever a part of me.