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February 2, 2017

The Accidental Inevitability of the Writing of Caddie Woodlawn


At its core, Caddie Woodlawn is about family. It tells the story of a year in the life of a young pioneer girl, growing up in Wisconsin. Her tomboyish struggles with her strictly traditional mother and her devotion to her more indulgent father are at the heart of this coming-of-age tale. Drawn from the beloved Newbery Medal-winning book by Carol Ryrie Brink, the development of its musical stage adaptation by myself and Tom Shelton was both accidental and inevitable. But more about that later. Back to family.

Carol Ryrie Brink based her novel on stories told by her maternal grandmother, Caroline Woodhouse Watkins, about her childhood. The search for family connections permeated many of Brink’s books, owing, perhaps, to her own tumultuous family history. Born in 1895, she was only four years old when her father died of consumption. A year later, her grandfather, Dr. W.W. Watkins was murdered by a crazed assassin on the streets of her hometown, Moscow, Idaho. In 1904, Brink’s mother Henrietta committed suicide, leaving her young daughter to be raised by Brink’s grandmother and two aunts. Without any siblings, the little girl grew up lonely, considering her pony to be her best friend. Even her marriage to Raymond Brink in 1918 began turbulently. Her aunt, who disapproved of the union, refused to allow the couple to marry in Moscow. In defiance, they wed at Raymond’s family’s rustic vacation home in Wisconsin. Despite the rocky start, it proved to be the beginning of a fifty-five-year marriage that produced two children, eight grandchildren, and numerous later descendants. As a writer, Brink drew from these experiences. The tales her grandmother told her of pioneer life in Wisconsin became a strong connection to the family she never really knew, and in 1935, she turned them into the classic children’s novel, Caddie Woodlawn. Subsequent novels dug a few skeletons out of the family closet (Stopover, Buffalo Coat, Strangers in the Forest, Snow in the River) or told humorous tales of her life with Raymond (Family Grandstand, Family Sabbatical). Her connection to family had finally found a juncture between reality and literature.

This family connection continued in our musical adaptation of Caddie Woodlawn for the stage. Carol Ryrie Brink was my grandmother, making Caddie my great-great grandmother. I am actually part of an unbroken line of Carolines on the female side of the genealogical tree. Going back more than seven generations, there is at least one daughter with Carol or Caroline as part of her name. There is even a piece of furniture known as the Caroline Table that is inherited by each namesake. It represents the family connection, but has also come to symbolize the independent strength expected of our women as particularly depicted by the spunky heroine of Caddie Woodlawn.

It would seem natural, then, that I would turn immediately to my own heritage when looking for material to adapt to the stage. However, it was Tom Shelton who first came up with the idea. This is the accidental part of the story. Tom and I had begun our collaborations at Occidental College where we were both Theater Arts majors. Our first project was a never-finished musical based on, but having little resemblance to, Tarzan. Although it was incomplete, it did get us an “A” in the class we were taking, and made us comfortable as collaborators. After graduation, I was directing at the Whittier Junior Theatre, and we would write plays that were produced there. One Saturday night, while kicking around town, we passed by a used bookstore window displaying an old copy of The Pink Motel by my grandmother. Tom exclaimed that this book was hilariously famous in his family because everyone had attempted to read it, but nobody had ever finished it, ostensibly because the kids kept stealing it from each other in order to get to the next chapter. When I told him I was related to the author he was amazed. We had known each other for years and never realized we had this weird cosmic connection. It seemed even stranger that we happened to pass by this store together at the very time when that book was on display. Tom declared it was destiny and we must make our next project something by Carol Ryrie Brink. It took some persuading from him, but finally I agreed. We settled on Caddie Woodlawn as our subject.

Our first attempt followed the book very closely. We workshopped it at Whittier Junior Theatre, and it starred many of my relatives, including my six-year-old daughter Emily (Caroline) in the role of Minnie Woodlawn. Tom himself played the role of Uncle Edmund, the ne’er-do-well brother of Mrs. Woodlawn who takes the family’s beloved dog Nero back to Boston and promptly loses him. While this production was popular, it was cumbersome, with too many settings and too much plot. We went back to the drawing board.

Our second version condensed the story to fewer locations. Uncle Edmund and Nero were cut and some plot elements and characters were combined for the sake of theatrical simplicity. We were satisfied with this new script and sent it out for production. I was teaching at Stevenson Jr. High School in East Los Angeles when I got a call from Mick Denniston of the Landers Theatre in Springfield, Missouri, announcing that we had won their national playwriting competition and our new and improved Caddie Woodlawn would have its World Premiere there. After that, Caddie had a variety of productions around the country, most notably at the First Stage Children’s Theatre in Milwaukee. In 2009 Caddie returned to her roots when the Red Cedar Youth Theater of Menomonie, Wisconsin produced the play only twelve miles away from where Caddie herself grew up. Since its publication with Samuel French, theatre companies around the country have continued to produce Caddie Woodlawn, bringing its story of family connections to an ever-widening audience.

And so, although its inception was accidental, the writing of the musical version of Caddie Woodlawn was surely inevitable. It was the natural progression of family from one generation to another. After all, I am a part of the Caroline dynasty. And as one character in the play says, “Families – they’re our link to forever.” Maybe Tom was right. It was destiny.

To purchase a copy of Caddie Woodlawn click here, and to learn more about licensing a production, click here.