Saturday, April 5, 2008

Carol Ryrie Brink

Born December 28, 1895 in Moscow, Idaho
Died August 15, 1981 in La Jolla, California

Carol Ryrie Brink wrote nearly forty plays, children's books, books for adults and collections of poetry but is principally remembered for three tales, all for children. She was born in 1895 in the small town of Moscow in the remote and only recently admitted state of Idaho. Though she and her family lived far from other relatives, they did carry on the family tradition of naming a girl in every generation Caroline, but giving each girl a distinctive nickname such as Kitty, Carrie, Caddie, etc. Since she was born near Christmas, Brink's mother decided that for this generation, Caroline Ryrie would be Carol.

Though she never dwelt on it, Brink's childhood was marked by tragedy. Her father immigrated to the US from Scotland at the age of twenty and married her mother, Henrietta Watkins, the daughter of a country doctor. Her father died of tuberculosis when Brink was only five years old. Her grandfather was murdered the following year. When she was eight her mother, who had remarried but showed insipient signs of instability, committed suicide. At this time she settled into the care of her grandmother, Caroline Watkins and two aunts, Winifred and Elsie. Beyond the maternal care she found in their company, Brink also absorbed the stories of frontier life from her grandmother, whose nickname was Caddie. These tales became the basis for Brink's book, Caddie Woodlawn.

Brink attended the University of Idaho there in Moscow, Idaho but for her senior year, she transferred to the University of California, Berkeley, graduating in 1918. That same year she returned to Moscow, Idaho and married Raymond Woodard Brink, a mathematics professor at the University of Idaho. They had a son in 1919 and a daughter in 1930.

In 1919, Professor Brink received an appointment to teach at the University of Edinburgh and for the next few years they lived in Scotland and, then later, France.

As with many of the authors profiled in our featured author essays, Brink wrote from an early age, but set aside those activities during the early years of her family's life. Inspired by the stories she shared with her children, she began writing for Sunday School papers and then national magazines. She published some children's plays in 1928 but her first book for children, Anything Can Happen on the River did not appear until 1934. Her next book, Caddie Woodlawn received the 1936 Newberry Medal and became the book on which her reputation was built.

AS mentioned earlier, the story of Caddie Woodlawn, was based substantially on the life of her grandmother. Brink's grandmother was still alive when she wrote down all the stories she remembered her grandmother telling her as a child. Brink was able to correspond with her grandmother, confirming details and elaborating on stories she had not fully understood. The protagonist, Caddie Woodlawn, is a red-headed eleven-year old growing up on the frontier in Wisconsin between the fall of 1864 and the fall of 1865. In literary terms, Caddie Woodlawn is something like the offspring of Anne of Green Gables and Tom Sawyer, kissing cousins to Laura Ingall Wilder's Little House on the Prairie stories and closely related to Louisa May Alcott's Jo March.

A partial explanation for the enduring popularity of this story is that, while it is interesting for its setting and the history, it is fundamentally a timeless story of growing-up. Caddie is a tomboy and enjoys the adventuresome frontier life she shares with her brothers and scorns the indoor, refined life of her sisters. Her biggest trial and biggest adventure, though, is that of growing up and growing into different expectations of her without losing herself. Some of the dialogue can seem almost hopelessly dated as when Caddie's dad tells her.
"...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 teach 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 much 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 you don't have to read many news articles regarding the breakdown in family structures in the inner cities, teen mothers, irresponsible behavior, etc. to instinctively feel that there is a deeper truth in this dialogue than is comfortable for those of us with a radical egalitarian bent.

Brink is a good example of a certain phenomenon regarding memory. She only has three books still in print, Caddie Woodlawn, Caddie Woodlawn's Family (originally published as Magical Melons, a sequel to Caddie Woodlawn) and The Baby Island. I have not read The Baby Island but have seen commentary from a number of readers. Their comments remind me of an incident a good number of years ago in my management consulting career.

Sally and I attended graduate school in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and began our courtship there. In our second year it became our custom to enjoy a Friday or Saturday evening dinner date at one of the Chinese restaurants, let us call it China Heaven, in Chinatown. It was good food at a cheap price, served quickly - all attributes well attuned to the needs of poor and busy grad students.

A few years later, having graduated and entered the field of management consulting, I was fortunate enough to end up with a project for a client in Philadelphia. As was always the case, the first few weeks of the project were pretty hectic. Workplans had to be developed, new staff brought into the project and trained up, client information collected and reviewed, interviews conducted, etc. Every night involved dinner with team members or with the client. After a few weeks things began to settle into a routine and I could carve out a little time to revisit the city and the sites of my student days.

One night I found myself free from any client obligations and with no team members in town. "Perfect" I thought to myself, "I'll go see if China Heaven is still around." Walking around Chinatown in Philadelphia in the early summer evening was a pleasant change of pace. It took a while to find the restaurant again; was it Tenth and Vine? Tenth and Race? Maybe it was Ninth or Eleventh. But soon enough I found it. It looked the same, smelled as I recalled it and the staff still whisked around briskly taking orders and whipping the food to your table almost as soon as you placed your order. I was enjoying this journey down memory lane. However, my first forkful of food told me that my memory had been playing tricks on me. As the song by Meatloaf says "Two out of three ain't bad." The food was cheap and it was served quickly. Sally's company had clearly distracted my attention from the quality.

And so it is with books. There is the story the author writes and then there is the story the reader reads and rarely are they the same. One influences the other and shapes the course for the reader but every reader's experience is to a degree unique based on their circumstances and context of their original reading. How we remember a book is shaped by where we were when we read it, what was going on in our lives, how old we were, etc.

This explains why some books that we loved in our childhoods and go out of our way to make sure our own children have available to read, end up sitting on a shelf never getting read. Our circumstances of our first reading were different and cannot be recreated for them.

Even more disappointing is when we discover that a book which we recall as being of the first order in quality and interest and having had a seminal influence on our thinking, turns out, when you reread it in preparation for giving to your own children, to be pretty improbable to the point of literary lameness.

And so it is with Brink's The Baby Island. The story is that of a couple of young girls (something like eleven and six) shipwrecked on an island along with four babies. They find themselves in the role of adults with responsibility for the welfare of those babies. I have seen numerous comments from parents saying how much they loved this book as a child, how that scenario of child as responsible-adult really clicked with them. But then they indicate that having re-read the story as an adult in preparation to sharing with their own child, they are struck by how improbable and frankly unrealistic the story comes across to an adult's eyes.

While this might be true, it still doesn't mean it doesn't have the power to engage a ten or twelve year-old child. They haven't lived long enough to have an aptitude for probabilities. The whole world is still possible and who can ever forget that child's feeling of longing for the power of adult decision-making so cleverly captured in Dr. Seuss's If I Ran the Zoo. The Baby Island still has the power to enchant; just not the adult.

The final book that has made a residual mark on reading generations, but which lamentably is not in print, is The Pink Motel. This was a favorite of Sally's growing up and she has over the years found a couple of extra copies in used bookstores to share with other young readers, all of whom have loved it. If you see it, nab it and enjoy it.

As her writing career progressed, Brink wrote a handful of books for adults, further children's plays, some poetry and many further children's books. As well-enjoyed as they might have been, none would ever come close to displacing the enduring appeal of Caddie Woodlawn.

Independent Reader

Baby Island by Carol Ryrie Brink Suggested

Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink and illustrated by Kate Seredy and Trina Schart Hyman Highly Recommended

Caddie Woodlawn's Family (originally Magical Melons: More Stories about Caddie Woodlawn) by Carol Ryrie Brink Recommended

Carol Ryrie Brink Bibliography

The Cupboard Was Bare by Carol Ryrie Brink Play for Children 1928
The Queen of the Dolls by Carol Ryrie Brink Play for Children 1928
Anything Can Happen on the River! by Carol Ryrie Brink Children's Book 1934
Caddie Woodlawn: A Frontier Story by Carol Ryrie Brink Children's Book 1935
Mademoiselle Misfortune by Carol Ryrie Brink Children's Book 1936
Best Short Stories for Children by Carol Ryrie Brink Children's Book 1936
Baby Island by Carol Ryrie Brink Children's Book 1937
All Over Town by Carol Ryrie Brink Children's Book 1939
Lad with a Whistle by Carol Ryrie Brink Children's Book 1941
Magical Melons: More Stories about Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink Children's Book 1944 (re-released as Caddie Woodlawn's Family) Buffalo Coat by Carol Ryrie Brink Adult's Book 1944
Caddie Woodlawn: A Play by Carol Ryrie Brink Children's Book 1945
Narcissa Whitman: Pioneer to the Oregon Country by Carol Ryrie Brink Children's Book 1945
Lafayette by Carol Ryrie Brink Children's Book 1946
Harps in the Wind: The Story of the Singing Hutchinsons by Carol Ryrie Brink Adult's Book 1947
Minty et Compagnie by Carol Ryrie Brink Children's Book 1948
Stopover by Carol Ryrie Brink Adult's Book 1951
Family Grandstand by Carol Ryrie Brink Children's Book 1952
The Highly Trained Dogs of Professor Petit by Carol Ryrie Brink Children's Book 1953
The Headland by Carol Ryrie Brink Adult's Book 1955
Family Sabbatical by Carol Ryrie Brink Children's Book 1956
The Pink Motel by Carol Ryrie Brink Children's Book 1959
Strangers in the Forest by Carol Ryrie Brink Adult's Book 1959
The Twin Cities (on Minneapolis-St. Paul) by Carol Ryrie Brink Adult's Book 1961
Chateau Saint Barnabe by Carol Ryrie Brink Adult's Book 1962
Snow in the River by Carol Ryrie Brink Adult's Book 1964
Andy Buckram's Tin Men by Carol Ryrie Brink Children's Book 1966
Winter Cottage by Carol Ryrie Brink Children's Book 1968
Two Are Better than One by Carol Ryrie Brink Children's Book 1968
The Bad Times of Irma Baumlein by Carol Ryrie Brink Children's Book 1972
Louly (western) by Carol Ryrie Brink Children's Book 1974
Salute Mr. Washington by Carol Ryrie Brink Play for Children 1976
The Bellini Look by Carol Ryrie Brink Adult's Book 1976
Four Girls on a Homestead by Carol Ryrie Brink Children's Book 1977
Goody O'Grumpity by Carol Ryrie Brink Children's Book 1994
A Chain of Hands by Carol Ryrie Brink Adult's Book

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