Meet Caroline

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


Nine-year-old Caroline Abbott lives in Sackets Harbor, New York, near where the St. Lawrence River flows into Lake Ontario, with her father, who owns a shipyard, her mother, and her widowed maternal grandmother. She loves sailing and anything to do with boats, even hoping to one day captain her own ship. Caroline spends a lot of time with her cousin Lydia, who's two years older and lives on a farm across the water in Upper Canada (present-day Quebec). One June day they're sailing with Lydia's older brother Oliver and Caroline's father when some British longboats come toward them at top speed. The British soldiers board the ship under threat of attack and announce that the United States has declared war on Britain. Caroline's father is arrested along with Oliver, but he's able to keep his nerves calm enough to ensure that his daughter and niece will be escorted safely to their homes. Her heart sinking, Caroline obeys her father's pleas to trust him and follows a sailor onto one of the British boats and watches her father's vessel sail away. 

The British captain returns Caroline as he'd promised, and as soon as Caroline is off the boat she tells one of the shipyard workers, Mr. Tate, about the war, instructing him to warn everyone else lest any more ships are captured. Then she runs as fast as she can to her house, to bring the terrible news to her mother. Amid the anger, Caroline's grandmother gently brings up a practical point about finances. The ship, intended for Oliver, wasn't fully paid for yet, and with Mr. Abbott gone for who knows how long, there might not be enough to pay the bills. Mrs. Abbott agrees that it's a real concern, and heads for the shipyard to instruct the workers to complete the two schooners on order. Caroline offers to help. She's spent many days at the shipyard and also knows where the accounting books are. The workers are relieved to still have jobs for the meantime. Mrs. Abbott kept the books when she and her husband first started the shipyard, so once Caroline shows her where everything's kept, the business is able to run relatively smoothly, as long as there is business.

As Caroline is showing her mother around her father's office and pledging to help in any way she can, a lieutenant from the US Navy enters. He hadn't yet heard about Mr. Abbott's capture and was in fact coming to commission a gunboat. He's hesitant to trust the work to a shipyard with no boss, but Caroline and her mother are adamant that their workers are skilled and have been taught well enough that they can build the boat. So more work is secured for the meantime, and if they do it well, more orders from the Navy can be expected.

The outlook from the shipyard is good, but the pall of her father and cousin in British custody looms over Caroline. A busybody neighbor, Mrs. Shaw, doesn't help, finding time to criticize Caroline's housekeeping skills during the crisis. At home, Caroline tries to relax with her embroidery, but the picture she's working on was going to be a gift to her father, and now she's not sure she'll ever see him again. Fortunately Caroline's grandmother offers comfort and advice, and Caroline sees that even something as seemingly insignificant as weeding the garden will help the family: it takes some of the burden off her aging grandmother, who in turn can do other things that her mother might have done, leaving her mother free to manage the shipyard, which is building a boat to fight the British. A few days later a messenger, Seth, brings news that Lydia was returned home safely, but also that the war is escalating. He encourages Caroline that her father will likely be released soon as he shouldn't hold any strategic interest for the British.

But weeks pass. By the end of July the only news is that Mr. Abbott and Oliver are being held in Kingston, a port city across the water from Sackets Harbor. One awful day, the British attack. Mrs. Abbott is at the shipyard, ready to defend the supplies from the British, but there are so many ships coming and Sackets Harbor has only one large defensive boat. Mrs. Shaw comes running, explaining that her husband and other volunteers are trying to fire cannons at the invading fleet, but the cannonballs are too small and so won't fire properly. They need heavy winter cloaks to wrap the cannonballs in. Caroline's grandmother immediately tells Caroline to fetch theirs, but Caroline knows that without the cloak, her grandmother's arthritic joints will be excruciating in the winter. Caroline has a better idea: she just recently got a large, thick carpet for her room. Cold feet are a small price to pay for fending off an attack. She and Mrs. Shaw cram it onto a wheelbarrow and take it to the front lines, where the men are relieved to see that the material will allow the cannons to fire, and that there's plenty of it. The British ships are driven back. When things settle, Caroline looks out over Lake Ontario. The only ship shes sees sailing is an American one. Watching it, Caroline vows to bring her father home.

Looking Back

By Caroline's time, the United States of America was only thirty-six years old. But since the Revolutionary War, it had more than doubled in size and population. Some Americans were itching to add Canada to the country, an idea the British weren't fond of. This wasn't the only animosity between the two nations: the British navy had made a habit of kidnapping American sailors and forcing them into service--more than ten thousand ripped away from their families, and also encouraged native tribes to act against the white settlers. Things came to a head when the United Stated declared war on Britain June 18, 1812, but this being a time before internet, phones, or even telegraph and reliable mail service, news of the war traveled slowly. Some people on the frontier didn't even know it was happening until they found themselves in the middle of a fight, like in the book. Once aware of the war, shipyards labored intensively, trying to catch up the British Navy, the strongest one in the world.


This book is dedicated to "all the readers who love history and stories as much as I do."

I don't know about you, but I can't think about the War of 1812 without thinking of the Johnny Horton song "The Battle of New Orleans" about the skirmish fought in January 1815--after the war officially ended. In 1814 we took a little trip/Along with Col Jackson down the mighty Mississip./We took a little bacon and we took a little beans/And we caught the bloody British in a town in New Orleans...

This book was published two hundred years after it's set.

Caroline has a black cat named Inkpot.

Caroline's father tells her at one point, "I'd be a poor father indeed if I made a promise I wasn't sure I could keep!" I agree. I don't promise my kids anything if I can't control it; for example, if they want to visit their grandparents but we don't know if they're even home, I don't promise we can go but I tell them I'll call and see.

Caroline's maternal grandfather was killed in action during the Revolutionary War (Oliver and Lydia's father is Mrs. Abbott's brother). In fact, this is what strengthens Mrs. Abbott's resolve to fight for her husband's and nephew's freedom: she's already lost her father to the British.

If Caroline's maternal grandfather was killed during the American Revolution, her mother would have been born is 1784 at the latest (a peace treaty was signed September 3, 1783). So she's in her late twenties at the youngest, not an unreasonable age to have an almost-ten-year-old, especially if she married in her late teens. It is odd that the family has only one child though.

Caroline has a sewing cabinet that's very similar to mine, except mine has a machine in it. Both look like nice end tables with tops that fold open to reveal extra storage inside. Most of mine is taken up by the machine and a few notions; Caroline's has sewing supplies and fabrics.


AJ said...

I love Caroline's book series!

SJSiff said...

They're my oldest goddaughter's favorite, too. :)