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  • Laura Ingalls and Caddie Woodlawn:Daughters of a Border Space
  • Susan Naramore Maher (bio)

Recent scholarship on women's writing has increasingly explored the metaphor of the border. Explaining the ambivalent power of border crossings, Diane Freedman in An Alchemy of Genres writes, "Borders can join and separate. . . . Borders suggest limitations, that which is prohibited and forbidden and in a constant state of transition. . . . It can be risky to try to migrate across a border, whether aesthetic or geographic" (47). Crossing a border both threatens and liberates, silences and opens one up to new expression. In the world of children's literature, growing up itself proves a crossing of borders. Young protagonists negotiating the increasing complexities of life face uncertain thresholds—entries to possible damnation, illumination, or both. Add to this inevitable maturation a move, a displacement, from the known to the unknown; then, children, while gaining through parents the traditions of other places, must still respond to the imperatives of new ground. Amid the uncertainties of growing up and resettlement, "a garbling of messages, the push and shove of conflicting influences" (West 253), American childhoods are shaped.

The American West, in particular, has provided children's writers a wealth of border crossings. Its vast reaches are, in Peggy Pascoe's words, "a cultural crossroads" (46), a space defined by ever-shifting borders. The diversity of the lands and the people is only part of the fascination engendered in this literature. Since the early years of this century, children's writers, re-envisioning the West, have focused particularly on the lives of settlers' children. Resettlement, as historian Elliott West has persuasively argued, blurred many boundaries. "To say the least," West comments:

social controls were imperfectly enforced, and girls and boys grew up close to the West's famous vices and its sizable population of rakehells and shady [End Page 130] characters. Theirs was no protected, choreographed upbringing. . . . In a dynamic and unsettled America, the child's role was shifting and imprecise.


Gender roles themselves underwent considerable revision. Settlers' daughters enjoyed the outdoors, contributed to men's work, felt themselves part of a national experiment. These daughters of "first wave women" (Fairbanks 160) questioned their mothers' practices and often identified strongly with the male members of their circles—fathers, brothers, and uncles (West 257).

Importantly, many frontier-born and -bred women—followed by their daughters—became writers for both the adult and juvenile markets. Their narratives helped define the settlement experience for an American audience eager to mythologize the Anglo-European migration to the plains states and beyond. Among the most influential of these children's writers are Laura Ingalls Wilder, creator of the autobiographical Little House series, and Carol Ryrie Brink, whose Wisconsin and Idaho tales also reclaim family history. Published amid the disruption of the Great Depression, their fictionalized memoirs—literary border crossings themselves—re-create an earlier period in which children came to grips with conflict and confusion. Countering the simplified popular West, so powerfully articulated in pulp Westerns, boys' magazines, and Hollywood productions, Wilder's and Brink's narratives explore the complexities inherent in any border crossing.1

Little House on the Prairie and Caddie Woodlawn, both published in 1935 and subsequently honored by the Newbery Award committee, share a common narrative: they present heroines trying to negotiate public and private spheres, to redefine gender lines, and to come to terms with the liberating spaces around them. Kathryn Adam claims the "rhythm of the Little House books carries Laura back and forth between town and prairie, civilization and wilderness, 'stay' and 'go,' in a sense she is the living embodiment of the central tension in her parents' marriage" (104). Brink's novel, too, shares this struggle. In attempting to modify the givens of mother-defined femininity, Laura and Caddie frustrate the domestic sphere "reconstructed" by their mothers (Rosenblum 74; Adam 99). These prairie-nurtured girls find their fathers (and, in Caddie's case, brothers) encouraging their attempts to open up the cultural borders that restrict them. Pa Ingalls fosters Laura's explorations—both spatial and intellectual—and Mr. Woodlawn permits Caddie to romp freely with her brothers, instructs her in repairing timepieces, and sanctions her...


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pp. 130-142
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