Caroline's Secret Message

Published in 2012; author Kathleen Ernst; illustrators Lisa and Robert Papps (they're married)


It's October. As Caroline is bringing in the harvest, she sees a skinny young man walking toward the farm. It's Oliver! The British have set him free (by sticking him on a boat near a deserted part of the American shore of Lake Ontario) but are still holding her father. They found out that he's a master shipbuilder and don't want him helping the Americans. They tried to have him build ships for the British, but he refused. Caroline is happy her cousin is free, but if the British are that worried about her father's skills, he might be held prisoner the entire war, which could last years. Oliver continues that her father is going to be sent east to Halifax soon, and that might be his chance to escape. Caroline's mother immediately makes plans to sail across Lake Ontario, but she'll need someone to come along and help steer her small boat in case of storms. Caroline's (and Oliver's) grandmother won't let Oliver risk capture again, especially when he won't be going home anyway--he wants to join the US Navy. Seth, the messenger, offers to go, but Mrs. Abbott refuses to put him at such a risk when he already crosses the border often to deliver mail. Caroline volunteers, and while Mrs. Abbott is nervous about the idea, Caroline is the best choice.

Caroline and her mother do worry about leaving the grandmother behind, though. Her arthritis flares up more in cold weather, and will make keeping house difficult. Fortunately, a woman and her two young daughters come to the door that very evening, looking for shelter. The woman's husband is in the military. They've followed him to Sackets Harbor, and she and her girls need a place to stay. There's plenty of room at the Abbott house, and they can help Caroline's grandmother. One daughter is only four, Amelia, but Rhonda Hathway is twelve, just a little older than Caroline. She and Caroline don't really mesh well, each making careless comments about the other (like Rhonda commenting that it must be nice her family's so close to Mr. Tate so he can take her father's place). They end up purposely exchanging harsh words before long. The next morning, Caroline and her mother set out for Canada.

They make it safely to Caroline's aunt and uncle's house (Lydia and Oliver's parents). Her uncle insists they hide their boat right away. All adult men in Canada could be pressed into service at any time, and the family is desperately trying to build a boat to get across the St. Lawrence River to the US before that happens. If any of their British-supporting neighbors find out, Caroline's aunt and uncle could be arrested as traitors, and possibly even hanged for it. Hearing about old family friends taking sides in the war makes Caroline and her mother realize that if her father escapes, he won't be able to trust just anyone as he makes his way back to the US--and he has no way of knowing who to trust nor where the British are patrolling. But Caroline has an idea. She brought her embroidery to keep herself calm, and she's nearly finished a map of Lake Ontario and its shoreline. She can mark the unsafe areas for her father. The trick now will be getting it to him.

When Caroline and her mother arrive at the British post, Mrs. Abbott politely but very firmly insists she be allowed to talk with the man in charge about her husband's being held illegally. They're taken to meet with a Major Humphries, who will only say that Mr. Abbott is alive and healthy. He won't allow Mrs. Abbott to visit him because she might be trying to smuggle something to him, much less entertain the notion of setting him free. Caroline speaks up that she hasn't seen her father in four months, imploring the man to think of his own children. Major Humphries softens a bit, having daughters of his own, and allows only Caroline a short visit. 

The guards search Caroline's things thoroughly, even breaking apart some cakes her grandmother had made to be sure nothing's hidden inside. She's given ten minutes with her father. As she goes to his cell, a guard whispers almost imperceptibly, "Your father misses you."

The moment Caroline sees her father, she flies into his arms, hugging him fiercely. The guard coughs pointedly, reminding the pair of the brief window of time they have. He stays in the room the whole time, making it difficult for Caroline to explain the significance of her embroidery. Caroline tells her father a story about raccoons getting into the neighbor's soap, while pointing to the markings on the map and mouthing "NOT SAFE." Too soon, time is up and she has to say goodbye to her father. As he leaves, he thanks her for the things she brought, glancing pointedly at the embroidered map.

Back at home, Caroline finds herself irked more and more by Rhonda. It seems she's making herself right at home, even to the point that Inkpot happily sits on Rhonda's lap. And her father visits often, forcing Caroline to think about her father's absence more and more. But Caroline's  mother points out that Rhonda is not purposely rubbing anything in Caroline's face, and that she's lonely too, in a new city where she's never been before. The two make up after a couple weeks, admitting they both felt jealous of the other, and start on their way to becoming friends. But Caroline's birthday (October 22) comes with no word from her father. Caroline's aunt and uncle and Lydia are safely in the US, at least. They bring with them a pretty little box perfect for holding her embroidery thread, decorated with different colored straw. It's from her father! Caroline had seen that he passed the time by making little things out of bits of material. One of the guards--perhaps the one who whispered to her--must have secretly left it at her aunt and uncle's. Caroline is overwhelmed with how nice everyone, even an enemy soldier, has been to her that feels guilty for having fun while her father's in prison. Her grandmother reassures her that her father wouldn't want her miserable, and enjoying a nice time doesn't take away from her hope that her father will return safely.

Looking Back

The historical section is about the effects of war on civilians living near or in battle zones. Apparently US troops violated the Third Amendment, because it mentions soldiers taking over homes. And from what I found in other sources, the Third Amendment was violated in the Civil War as well. Back to 1812. Civilians were usually busy running households and businesses, especially with men fighting, captured, and killed. When they did have free time, they often tried to stay busy with needlework or other such ventures. Sitting idle meant too much time to think about the war. Similarly, prisoners of war made little crafts with bits of straw or wood or whatever they could find, to pass the time.


This book is dedicated to "my parents, who filled our home with books." (Good parents!)

Rhonda gives Caroline some lace she made for a birthday present, to go on the new dress Caroline sewed. Caroline also gets a promise of a knot-tying lesson from Mr. Tate (specifically to make a cover for the water jug in her father's office), embroidery scissors from her mother, and a biscuit cutter from her grandmother.

At first I thought the box meant Caroline's father had escaped and left it himself.