Home » Book Review » Katy Carr series // by Susan Coolidge

Katy Carr series // by Susan Coolidge

  • What Katy Did (1872)
  • What Katy Did at School (1873)
  • What Katy Did Next (1886)
  • Clover (1888)
  • In the High Valley (1890)

Do you ever have books sitting on your shelf that you  know you are going to enjoy, yet somehow never get around to reading?  I’m not sure how long my anthology of the Katy Carr books, which includes the first four books in the series, has been gathering dust and getting moved from place to place, but I’m going to say at least a couple of decades.  And, surprise surprise, when I finally read these stories – I loved them!

As you can see from the copyright dates, these are old stories, written and published during a time when “family stories” were very popular (think:  Little Women).  These are simple stories that honestly are what I classify as “coming-of-age” books, without nearly as much angst and extramarital sex as those types of stories seem to include today.

These are terribly thrilling books, but they are gentle, delightful little stories.  The first focuses on Katy, the oldest of her family of several children (I can’t remember how many, five or six), who live with their widowed father (a doctor) and an almost-elderly aunt who does the housekeeping and minds the children.  The setting is a small town in Ohio near Lake Erie, so that alone kept me intrigued.  What the book lacks in intrigue, it makes up for in the pure interest of a glimpse into life at the time.

As is frequent in books from this era, Katy starts out as a rambunctious and careless child.  She gets very ill and almost dies, and has to spend a long time recovering, during which time she learns lessons in patience and thoughtfulness.  While Katy doesn’t lose her independence or intelligence, she does gain maturity and compassion.

In the second book, Dr. Carr fears that Katy has grown old before her time, since she has taken on the responsibility of the housekeeping after the death of their aunt.  He decides to send her and the next sister, Clover, to boarding school.  Again, it’s not necessarily the story as much as the setting that completely engaged me.  It’s a multiple-day journey to the boarding school in the Connecticut countryside, which means that Katy and Clover won’t be able to see their family for a full year.  This volume also follows a pattern from the time, when boarding school stories were very popular.  There are adventures and intrigues and delightful characters.  I was particularly entertained by their homeward journey, which included traveling on the Erie Canal, simply because it just was – which to me is one of the big differences between reading historical fiction and reading books that were written during an earlier time period.  Coolidge doesn’t explain the Canal or even describe it much – it’s just a natural part of the story, like an interstate would be in a book written today.

What Katy Did Next follows a third stereotype for books of the time period: the Grand Tour of Europe!  While Dr. Carr couldn’t afford to send Katy on such a journey under normal circumstances, he agrees to let her travel with a widow and her daughter, as a sort of companion/friend/babysitter.  In this story we discover one of Coolidge’s weaknesses – writing any type of romance.  There is a lot of potential here, but Coolidge keeps things so G-rated that it’s a little difficult to believe that Katy really has any type of romantic feelings for her young man at all.  This was probably my least favorite of the batch (which honestly isn’t saying much because I found all these stories delightful) just because there was definitely a lot of lecturing about history and historic sites, and it all got a little travelogue-y, but it was still a great deal of fun.

While I would have greatly enjoyed a story about newly-married life with Katy, Coolidge decides to shift her focus on the fourth book to Katy’s next sister, Clover.  One of the younger brothers (can’t remember his name), who is in his late teens, has been sickly, and despite the expense, it’s decided that the best thing for him is to travel to the clean mountain air of Colorado.  This book was absolutely fascinating because of the glimpse into “regular” life at the time.  It was so much fun to see Colorado in the 1870’s, that time period between it being a frontier and being truly “civilized” – when there were trains but not cars, when towns and communities were growing exponentially, when the concept of ranching was in its infancy.  Again, Coolidge’s weakness at romance is apparent in this story, but it was still a great deal of fun.

When I finished these books, I found out that there is a fifth (and final) story to the sequel, In the High Country.  It took me a little while to get a copy, and then an even longer while to get around to reading it, so I fear I didn’t appreciate it quite as much, as some of the details of the various characters had become rather fuzzy in the intervening weeks.  In Clover, that young lady ends up marrying a rancher who has immigrated there from England.  In In the High Country, the British rancher’s cousins (or maybe it’s his cousins neighbors? I can’t remember) also move to Colorado so that the brother can become a partner of the ranch and the sister can take up housekeeping for her brother.  This story starts in England and focuses a great deal on the inherent prejudices against the wilderness of Colorado (and Americans in general) held by the sister.  She is gradually won over by the warmth and welcome of Clover and the rest of the family, and of course finds love and happiness along the way.  It was mostly fun to see several loose-ends tied up for the Carr family, and to be able to think of them all contently living out the rest of their days.

All in all, while these aren’t books that will keep you glued to the pages, they were relaxing and happy reads, with a great deal of fun to be had just from the descriptions of everyday life at the time.

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