The Bookworm: A little house and a big boss

Terri Schlichenmeye

“Caroline: Little House, Revisited”

By Sarah Miller

c.2017, Wm. Morrow 

$25.99, $31.99 Canada; 371 pages

Packing stinks. Wrapping up all your things, cushioning breakables, putting things where you won’t find them for months. Ugh. Is it worth it to have a new home? A new life?  As in “Caroline: Little House, Revisited” by Sarah Miller, is the sacrifice worth a new beginning you’re not sure you want?

"Caroline: Little House, Revisited” author Sarah Miller.

She loved him so. Looking at her husband, Charles, Caroline Ingalls saw the light in his face as he spoke. She knew he’d heard that the government was selling Kansas farmland at reasonable prices, just as she knew how he wanted that, and an adventure. His eyes told her that he also wanted her permission, and she loved him too much to say no.

She hadn’t informed him yet that their family would increase by one, come summer. She barely knew it herself, and she couldn’t imagine giving birth without family nearby. Still, she could never deny her husband his hearts’ desire, so she said yes to making plans, to packing their belongings in a canvas-topped wagon, to estimate what supplies they might need for their travels. They’d depart from Wisconsin in late winter, when the river was still frozen solid. They would be in Kansas by mid-summer.

“Caroline: Little House, Revisited” by Sarah Miller.

It was cold when they started: five-year-old Mary and three-year-old Laura needed mittens until they reached the southern part of Iowa. Caroline’s own quilts ensured the girls’ comfort; supper often came from an open-pit fire. They might go days without seeing anyone but each other and oh, how Caroline missed her sister! She missed her little cook stove, the rocker that Charles made for her when Mary was born, and the feel of solid floorboards. She missed everything there was to miss about Wisconsin, but the state was weeks behind her.

In front of her was a promise, and a husband who sang when he was happy. She imagined a garden, and crops spread beneath a big sky dome, family, new friends, and a new baby. She could also imagine danger.

Remember thrilling to tales from “The Little House on the Prairie?” If you do, then author Sarah Miller has this: there’s another side to the story and in “Caroline,” it’s no less exciting.

At the outset of this novel, you know you’re in for something good. Miller makes this a love story, first: Charles and Caroline Ingalls are sweetly bashful and still courting, even though, as this novel opens, they’ve been married a decade. Caroline adores her husband and her girls, but Miller lets her be flawed: the title character is unsure of herself, prone to seethe silently, and there are times when she briefly wishes she was childless. Truly, that introspection drives this novel as much as does the new world Caroline encounters, making it a perfect addition to a beloved story.

In her afterword, Miller explains how she used Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books to make a “marriage of fact and fiction,” and fans are going to love it. If you grew up devouring “Little House” books, the covers of “Caroline” pack a great story.

 “The Last Chicago Boss”

By Peter “Big Pete” James with Kerrie Droban

c. 2017, St. Martin’s Press

$27.99, $38.99 Canada; 287 pages

If you could open the throttle some. Just a little more juice, more pedal, kick things up a notch, and the growl you hear would resonate from your feet up. More gas, and you’d know what it was like to fly with no concern for potholes or stop signs. A little more throttle – although, as in “The Last Chicago Boss” by Peter “Big Pete James with Kerrie Droban, be careful you don’t get throttled yourself.

“The Last Chicago Boss” by Peter “Big Pete” James with Kerrie Droban.

It started with a game called “Risk.”

Peter James was 12 years old and won. He won all games of strategy easily, in fact, so when his father asked him what he “wanted to be” someday, James knew that the only answer was to be in control.

His uncle showed him how fixing the horses made a man rich. His mother taught him that you can’t expect to “be number one” if you don’t expect it of yourself. James learned to rig whatever he could; he went to college and, to rescue failing grades, used those talents to land an internship in the office of the Wisconsin Speaker of the House. He dealt drugs, disappeared for eight years, bought a new Harley, and then figured out how to form a motorcycle club within a service club.  

Kerrie Droban of “The Last Chicago Boss.”
Peter “Big Pete” James of “The Last Chicago Boss.”

James wanted to control Chicago; specifically, he wanted to be the “Boss of Chicago,” and he’d do it in the same strategic way he’d won childhood games: by gaining trust with the Outlaw Motorcycle Gang and working his way through the ranks with intelligence, observation, force, and by sheer intimidation. It began at the bottom, as a probationary member at the mercy of anyone who outranked him.

It ended with a battle against an enemy that almost always wins…

Let’s put this on the table now: there is absolutely not one “PC” thing inside “The Last Chicago Boss.”  Many people may find this book offensive, in fact: women, for example, are called “broads,” and that’s one of the nicer slurs you’ll find here. The OMG is, after all, “mostly white supremacists,” although author Peter “Big Pete” James says he fought that.

For that, and for many reasons, reading this book isn’t easy. From the outset, it feels like standing inside one of those wind-tunnel money games: when the whole thing starts, bits of story whirl around while you catch as much of it as you can. If there’s not a crime committed on any given page, then you’re reading a different book.  Just about everyone has a pseudonym (or two) and stories stop and start.

A few pages in, though, this all seems intentional, as though we can’t handle the whole tale, as if we’re being protected. James (with Kerrie Droban) tells too much but you can sense there’s a lot left unsaid.

So yes, it’s hard to read this book but impossible to look away, especially if you can handle what you find here. For True Crime fans, lovers of The Godfather, bikers, or anyone wanting a stick-in-your-brain story, “The Last Chicago Boss” reads full-throttle.

The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.