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A frontier voice, rediscovered: 'Caddie Woodlawn' comes back to life

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'Caddie Woodlawn'
David Brink examines an inscription from his mother, Carol Ryrie Brink, in her book "Caddie Woodlawn" at his home in Minneapolis, Oct. 11, 2014.
Jeffrey Thompson / MPR News

Carol Ryrie Brink grew up listening to her grandmother's stories of pioneer life on the western Wisconsin frontier. She wove them into one of the most beloved children's books of the 1930s, "Caddie Woodlawn."

      Caddie was an 11-year-old girl of action, a tomboy and natural leader in the wilderness. Brink's book captured that independent era, one that many longed for in the depths of the Great Depression. The book won the coveted Newbery Medal for children's literature in 1936.

      Brink wrote prolifically during the first half of the 20th century while raising two children in Minnesota. Changing literary tastes, however, pushed her work to the lost end of library shelves over time. She died in 1981.

    But she left something very valuable behind — eight hours of hers and her grandmother's stories on tape, recorded by her biographer, Mary Reed. They are rich in detail about pioneer life, a historical trove that was lost until her son David found it and converted the cassettes into CDs.

      "At the age of 95 and being a pack rat, I have got piles and piles of stuff and it was at the back," David said recently as he tinkered with audio gear at his home in Minneapolis.

      He pressed a button and the voice of his mother emerged. "...You're gonna ask questions on the tape, aren't you?"

      The interview went on for hours on a wide range of topics from her birth to her writing to her grandmother, who raised Ryrie Brink after her parents died.

      She said her parents thought she was stillborn — until her grandfather stepped in, "worked my arms up and down and blew his tobacco-y breath into me and finally got me started crying."

Carol Ryrie Brink
Author Carol Ryrie Brink's famous children's book "Caddie Woodlawn" was published in 1935. This photograph of her was taken around 1936.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

      Ryrie Brink and her husband lived in the Twin Cities for more than 40 years where they raised David and his sister. Brink remembers how his mother balanced her work as a homemaker with her writing.

      "When she had finished the vacuuming she'd sit down at the desk and write a chapter."

      "Caddie Woodlawn" is one of Carol Ryrie Brink's best known works.

      One of the book's most dramatic scenes is where Caddie's neighbors hear a rumor that nearby Indians plan to attack the settlers. The white settlers make a plan to strike first and kill the Indians.

      "And Caddie saddled up a horse and rode to the Indian camp and warned Indian John," said David Brink.

      Indian John was the name the white people had given the leader of the native people.

      After a harrowing ride through the February cold, Caddie arrives alone at the Indian camp and tells the Indians they must flee. 

Original manuscript
Carol Ryrie Brink's original manuscript of "Caddie Woodlawn" is part of the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
Jeffrey Thompson / MPR News

      Indian John accompanies her home through the dark and meets with her father who has quelled plans to attack and tells Indian John he'll keep the peace.

      "Caddie Woodlawn," published in 1935, was a hit. And winning the Newbery Medal meant that "every library in the country would purchase a copy of the book, and parents who paid attention to the best books would buy the book for their children, so that book has never gone out of print," said Karen Nelson Hoyle, a retired University of Minnesota children's literature curator.

      The university's Kerlan Collection is one of the world's most extensive children's literature research collections. It holds some of Ryrie Brink's original manuscripts and notes and batches of fan letters from school children. The letters show Ryrie Brink's attention to the voices of children.

      "'What songs did you sing? What games did you play?'" Nelson Hoyle said of Ryrie Brink's questions to kids. "She wanted to get it right and get all this detail into the book that became "Caddie Woodlawn."

David Brink
David Brink recently listened to hours of interviews with his mother, Carol Ryrie Brink, author of "Caddie Woodlawn."
Jeffrey Thompson / MPR News

      David Brink has gained prominence over his lifetime as an attorney. He was president of the American Bar Association.

      He's widely respected by his peers for his legal knowledge. His father, Raymond Brink, was a gifted mathematician and chair of the University of Minnesota mathematics department.

      Even so, he marvels at his mother's accomplishments — raising a family during the Depression, writing books, short stories, poetry and painting.

      Brink says every few years he picks up "Caddie Woodlawn" for another read with the same reaction.

      "I always shed a tear before I close it up," he said. "It's a wonderful story."