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A descendant of 'Caddie Woodlawn' has pioneered a stage adaptation of the children's story.

August 21, 1986|SUE CORRALES | Community Correspondent

Susan Carol Eiden, 35, recently dyed her brown hair red. Daughter Emily, 6, has taken to wearing prairie dresses and pointy-toed, lace-up shoes.

Eiden calls it "our Caddie Woodlawn mode."

Eiden and Tom Shelton, the same team that turned Huckleberry Finn into a children's musical last year, have adapted the novel "Caddie Woodlawn" for the Whittier Junior Theater.

The play about the adolescence of Caddie Woodlawn, a red-haired Wisconsin pioneer girl, runs through this weekend. Eiden's mother made many of the costumes, and her father, husband, daughter, brother and nephew all have parts, so it stands to reason that the clan is feeling pretty pioneer-ish these days.

Besides, Caddie Woodlawn is part of the family.

Caddie's real name was Caroline Augusta Woodhouse. It was Woodhouse's granddaughter, Carol Ryrie Brink, who wrote the original children's novel that won the book the 1936 Newbery Medal, awarded each year for outstanding children's literature. Brink was Eiden's grandmother.

Brink fashioned the book from tales Woodhouse used to regale her grandchildren with about her childhood in the woods of western Wisconsin.

It was no ordinary childhood. While much of the rest of America was fighting the Civil War, Caddie was befriending "dangerous" Indians and tipping them off when the settlers were planning an attack. As told in the novel, Caddie narrowly escaped death by drowning, lightning and prairie fire. While most of her friends quilted and embroidered, Caddie plowed fields with her brothers and challenged the school bully to a fistfight.

Like the real-life Woodhouses, the Woodlawns were the children of an English nobleman-turned-pioneer. When word came that he had only to renounce his American citizenship and return to England to claim the fortune left to him by an uncle, Caddie voted with the rest of her family to stay in the United States instead.

The book is still standard fare for youngsters, said Bonnie Weber, children's librarian at the main branch of the Whittier Public Library. These days, all eight of the Whittier library's copies of "Caddie Woodlawn" are checked out. So are the five at the nearby Whitwood branch. Weber guesses that Eiden's play is responsible. "That book circulates quite a bit," she said, "but usually we have a couple of copies on the shelf."

In just nine months, Eiden and Shelton wrote a 69-page script with 18 songs and taught it to a cast of 40, three-quarters of whom are children. Their adaptation is cleverly structured, the song are singable, and the lyrics are, at times, quite funny. Some of the actors are genuinely talented, but most are just local folks who thought it would be fun to be in a play. During a recent rehearsal, small settlers scratched on stage, the 12-year-old leading lady had a cold, and nearly everybody blew a line. But the singing was loud and lively, and once Eiden pointed out a mistake, it rarely cropped up again.

If it seemed like a lot of work for eight performances, Eiden--a junior high school English and drama teacher--insists that it is worth it. "I've gotten a lot of satisfaction putting this on stage," she said. "It's given me a real sense of my own origins."

Not that she ever doubted them. Eiden has read "Caddie Woodlawn" more times than she can count. As a child, she used to recruit friends to "play Caddie Woodlawn" in a field north of Laurel School in Whittier.

Besides, Eiden grew up with the Caroline Table. The mahogany end table had been in the family for generations before Caddie Woodhouse was born, always owned by a woman named Carol or Caroline. The table is central to both the book and the play. Today, it sits in the front hall of the Whittier home belonging to Nora Caroline Hunter, Eiden's mother.

There is a line in the play about the table someday belonging to Woodlawn's "great-great-great-granddaughter." That would be Emily of the pointy shoes and prairie dresses, whose middle name is Caroline.

Tickets for the play at the Whittier Community Center Auditorium, 7630 S. Washington Ave., are $4.50 for adults and $3 for children and seniors. Call (213) 945-8205 for performance information.

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