Laura Ingalls Wilder

Disclaimer: While the cover photo may be “Rants,” I’m not exactly sure if this is a rant or not.

I came across an interesting news article this morning at work:

This is something I’m very conflicted on. Laura Ingalls Wilder was one of the very first authors that I read every book from. I picked up Little House on the Prairie at Wal-Mart when I was seven or eight, or maybe even younger — I might’ve been in Kansas myself, making me six! I’ve reread the first two a few times, but I haven’t brought myself to read the new few over again. Not sure why — probably because I associated them with everything boring when I was younger (what six-year-old wants to read about adults?).

But back to the news article. Here’s a few highlights:

In its decision to remove Wilder’s name from the award, the library association had cited “anti-Native and anti-Black sentiments in her work” when it announced the review of Wilder’s award in February. The award, reserved for authors or illustrators who have made “significant and lasting contribution to children’s literature,” will no longer be called the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award. It’s now the Children’s Literature Legacy Award.

by the same measure, critics say, her family’s intrusion on Native American lands, particularly in “Little House on the Prairie,” represented a whole period of abuse against tribes across the United States, justified by white settlers’ belief that Native Americans didn’t count as settlers on their own land.

One scholar does come out in defense of Laura, though:

 Caroline Fraser, author of “Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder,” argued that the racial insensitivity in Wilder’s book shouldn’t mean that children shouldn’t read it.
In a March column for The Washington Post, after the association announced that it was considering stripping Wilder’s name from the award, Fraser argued that the library association “evokes the anodyne view of literature” that it has fought against, and that no book, “including the Bible, has ever been ‘universally embraced.’ ”

“Each generation revises the literary canon. While the answer to racism is not to impose purity retroactively or to disappear titles from shelves, no 8-year-old Dakota child should have to listen to an uncritical reading of ‘Little House on the Prairie,” she wrote.

“But no white American should be able to avoid the history it has to tell.”

What was the cause of all of this, you might ask?

Someone in 1953 noticed a short sentence where:

Pa, modeled after Wilder’s own father, who tells of his desire to go “where the wild animals lived without being afraid.” Where “the land was level, and there were no trees.” And where “there were no people. Only Indians lived there.”

That someone wrote in to Harper’s, where an editor was shocked that someone had overlooked this sentence in the years since the book’s publication. It wasn’t until the article itself explained what was wrong with the sentence (hint: it has to do with people) that I was able to understand it.

Give up? By saying “there were no people,” Laura means that Indians (Native Americans) are not people, either. Harper’s changed “people” to “settlers” in later editions, but the damage was done.

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s descriptions of non-white people throughout her books have become enough of a problem — particularly in this day and age of people claiming political correctness — that the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award is now the Children’s Literature Legacy Award. I’m unsure how to feel about that.

On the one side, yes, the way she depicts natives and non-white people in her novels are problematic. Yes, if you have an impressionable child, they might be able to pick up on that and see that either they or others are truly “others.”

However, this was a book written a long time ago. This is a book that we should learn from. As Caroline Fraser says, just because there is racial insensitivity doesn’t mean people should avoid the book. It opens up avenues to allow people to have better conversations within the classrooms, better discussions as to what was right and what was wrong, and how the book was written and what time it was written in.

Laura Ingalls Wilder brought a lot of people to reading, and she’s been immortalized in those books (albeit an extremely fantasized version — did you know Jack the Bulldog was actually traded for a set of horses & never left Kansas?!) and in Melissa Gilbert, who played her in the television series decades ago.

Policing everything is not the way to go through this.

Now, I’ve probably messed everything up while attempting to figure out how to write this article in a non-biased way. I love Laura Ingalls Wilder (or at least I did when I was a kid), and to villainize her decades after her death by saying she was racist? I don’t know how to feel about that. On the one hand, she did write some racist things. On the other hand, this allows for discussions in the classroom and it’s a look at how things were in the time she grew up. Let me assure you that I’m not defending her writings in any way. I’m simply saying, they’re a part of American history and erasing them isn’t going to erase what went on. We need to learn from our past in order to make our way to our future.

What are your opinions on this? How does this make you feel? Were you a Little House fan growing up? Let me know in the comments!

And as always, keep reading.


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