Monday, December 21, 2009

Caroline by Willo Davis

Caroline Hoxie. I remember reading this book in high school and loving it. Fortunately, re-reading it in my thirties (early, but still) didn't ruin the memories. When I was a teenager, I was entranced by the romance and old west themes. (I'll admit that I was a huge Young Riders fan at the time as well.) As an adult, I appreciated Caroline's growth more.

Caroline starts off as a rather spoiled teen aged girl. Her older brothers have decided to work the gold fields in California, and she wants to go with them. They tell her no, that the journey would be too dangerous for a girl.

Caroline, believing that she can handle anything a boy can, decides to disguise herself as a boy and follow them. This was perhaps the most painful part of the book for me. Caroline knows that communication between California and Michigan is sporadic at best, and that she will likely never see her father or grandmothers again. But she just takes off, leaving them a note to be found in the morning. I would have loved to have seen their reaction. I'm honestly surprised that they didn't send someone after her.

Now Caroline might have been raised alongside her brothers, and she may be able to perform many of the same tasks as they, but we find that she has been somewhat sheltered in her upbringing. She took off on this trip with little planning, and no idea of the dangers her brothers referred to when they decided not to take her with them. Caroline had expected hard work, she had not expected the attitudes of others on the trail. She met some nice folks, but she also met some real creeps. Some criminally so. It's at this point she realizes the real dangers that her brothers warned about.

Caroline makes it to Independence, MO- the jumping off point, and realizes that it is going to be next to impossible to find her brothers. She has to remain in her disguise and try to find her own way to California.

It's at this point she meets Dan Riddle. Dan first saved Caroline when she was about to be beat up by a group of adolescent boys. Later they meet at a dance- Dan was there as Dan while Caroline had been convinced to dress up as a girl for the occasion. In essence she was a girl disguised as a boy, who was disguised as a girl- very Victor/Victoria. Later they met again (Caroline back in her boy clothes) when Dan hired her to help him keep inventory- the person previously hired had lied about his qualifications and needed to be let go.

So Dan and Caroline share a long, stressful trip on the wagon train. They share in the back breaking work, uncomfortable conditions, and close quarters from Missouri to California. I suppose during something like that, you either kill each other or fall in love. Caroline chose to fall in love, something a bit more complicated as she still needed to maintain her disguise as a boy- and alternative lifestyles were less accepted in 1850.

Eventually Dan figures out that something's up, but he doesn't say anything to Caroline. It honestly is safer for her to be a boy on the wagon train. I do wonder what was going through his head when he thought Caroline was male though. Was he in denial, questioning his sexual orientation, or what? It could have been a whole different story through his eyes.

It all comes to a head when Caroline discovers gold. She finally admits to being a girl, he tells her he's known for awhile, and they agree to get married. Other sub-plots are resolved about this time as well, but honestly all I cared about was that Caroline and Dan were getting their happily ever after.

My favorite thing about this book is Caroline's character growth. She caught some luck breaks and she knew it. The whole journey could have turned out a lot differently, and by differently I mean tragically. She left home with the expectation that the trip would be easy and that her brothers would take care of her. She arrived in California a lot more self-sufficient- but not anachronistically so. She still had the expectation that Dan would take care of her, but she also knew that she could take care of him. She was a lot more prepared for the realities of married life and the hardships that they could face and win.

All in all, it was a great read fifteen years ago, and remains a great read today.