Carol Ryrie Brink’s birth was attended by her grandfather, Dr. William Woodbury Watkins. When the baby girl emerged, she did so silently. Her grandmother, Carol Woodhouse Watkins, who was also there, whispered, “Stillborn.” Dr. Watkins had none of that. He picked up the infant and began breathing into its mouth. After a few moments the baby began to squirm and cry. As Brink said in her autobiography, A Chain of Hands, “He gave me my life more surely than my parents did.”
Her first tragedy was when her father, Alex Ryrie, died from tuberculosis when she was five. When Brink was six years old, she would know her second heartbreak. On August 4, 1901, her grandfather turned 55. It would be his last birthday.
On that Sunday, Dr. Watkins was driving a phaeton on his way to his office in Moscow where he was to attend to a sick young girl. As he approached an intersection a man on horseback rode up in front of Watkin’s carriage. Recognizing the man as William Steffans a local farmer and fellow Mason, he stopped and greeted him. Watkins knew Steffans as a violent man, one whom he had previously confronted after Steffans had beaten his own mother.
Steffans was not headed to church that day. He had a to-do list with him of the worst possible kind. The name of Dr. Watkins was on it. Steffans promptly pulled his pistol and shot the doctor. Watkins’ horse startled and ran, stopping only when it arrived at the familiar office of the man now sprawled dead on the seat of his carriage.
Meanwhile, Steffans rode through the streets of Moscow looking for people on his list that he had grudges with. He wasn’t having any luck finding them, so he began shooting randomly at anyone he saw, wounding several. The police were soon in pursuit. Foretelling the plot device of countless future movies, they shot not the tire of a criminal’s car, but the leg of his horse.
Afoot now, Steffans ran across the fields to his house and holed up inside. The townspeople formed a posse, gathered guns, and began a siege of the house. Steffans returned fire and the battle went on for some two hours. The mother he had treated so badly called out from inside the house that her son was dead. Whether from his own hand or a posse bullet is unclear.
In addition to Dr. Watkins a deputy died from wounds inflicted by Steffans.
Dr. Watkins was an engaged man, active not only in Moscow, but statewide. He was the first president of the state’s medical association, a member of the Board of Regents at the University of Idaho, and the chair of the first Idaho State Republican convention, during which he turned down a nomination for governor.
Brink honored her grandfather when she wrote a novel called Buffalo Coat in 1944. Based on his life, the book was on the New York Times bestseller list for weeks.
The final early tragedy in Brink’s life was the suicide of her mother when Carol was nine following a disastrous marriage. After that the young girl went to live with her widowed grandmother, Carol Woodhouse Watkins. It was her grandmother’s story, fictionalized in the book Caddie Woodlawn that won Brink the 1936 Newbery Medal for “distinguished contribution to American Literature for children.”
In all, Carol Ryrie Brink would write more than 30 books, including her acclaimed adult trilogy Buffalo Coat, Strangers in the Forest, and Snow on the River, the last of which won the National League of American Pen Women Fiction Award.
Carol Ryrie Brink passed away at age 85 in 1981.