I have hosted the Laura Ingalls Wilder Reading Challenge during the month of February for the past eight years. In recent years Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books and legacy have come under closer cultural scrutiny. There’s evidence that Pa knowingly homesteaded on land that belonged to Indians and skipped town to avoid debts. Last year Laura’s name was even removed from the Association for Library Service to Children’s award due to perceived “inconsistency between Wilder’s legacy and the association’s core values of inclusiveness, integrity and respect, and responsiveness” and “anti-Native [American] and anti-black sentiments in her work.”
Some who charge Wilder with racism fail to read the concerning passages in context. For instance, one oft-quoted passage states that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.” But, in context, this statement was made by the Ingalls’ neighbor in Little House on the Prairie, and “Pa said he didn’t know about that. He figured that Indians would be as peaceable as anybody else if they were left alone.” In The Long Winter, Pa advocates believing and following the advice of an Indian predicting a severe winter ahead. Another troubling sentence in Little House on the Prairie reads, ” … there were no people. Only Indians lived there.” When an editor pointed out to Laura that the sentence made it sound as if Indians weren’t considered people, Laura had the sentence changed to “‘… there were no settlers.’ She wrote to the editor, ‘It was a stupid blunder of mine. Of course Indians are people and I did not intend to imply they were not.'”
Pa participates in a minstrel show in blackface. But the family enjoyed and respected a black doctor whom they credited with saving them from scarlet fever. Pamela Hill Smith has a section in Pioneer Girl explaining how blackface was viewed at the time, saying that “Before the American Civil War, many abolitionists embraced minstrelsy as a way to reach a broader American audience, and some minstrel troupes performed songs with distinctly abolitionist themes” (p. 254, note 62). It was not considered offensive then, though it is now.
Even the ALSC said that “Changing the name of the award should not be viewed as an attempt to censor, limit, or deter access to Wilder’s books and materials…This change is not a call for readers to change their personal relationship with or feelings about Wilder’s books, nor does it suggest that anyone stop reading Wilder’s books, talking about them, or making them available to children. The change, however, may prompt further critical thinking about Wilder’s books and the discussions that can take place around them.”
Here on Laura’s 152nd birthday, I want to share why I believe Laura is still worth reading:
1. Her books depict accurate, if not right, views of the times. Parents and teachers who use Laura’s book should discuss the larger picture. Probably most of the settlers’ negative feelings about Native Americans sprang from fear. A major massacre by Native Americans occurred during this time in history, so naturally settlers were afraid and wary. But study can be made about why the Native Americans reacted as they did and the ways they were mistreated. Our country’s treatment of Native Americans is one of the worst marks on its record. But it would be anachronistic to have the characters of the late 1800s depicting enlightened thinking of the early 2000s. The books can also act as a springboard to discussion of how times and attitudes have changed over the years. No time or culture has every aspect right. It takes long years to change cultural thinking. We don’t learn from history by excising the parts we disagree with today. Wrong attitudes can be viewed in light of the times, not to excuse them but to understand them and to trace how those attitudes have changed since that time. Society still has a long way to go, but we can look back and see that progress has been made.
2. Laura is not responsible for her father’s wrongdoing. She was a child when he made his decisions.
3. Laura’s books are historically based fiction. Some have faulted Laura for not including some aspects of her family’s history in the books and for changing some details. But the books were not meant to be completely autobiographical. Laura originally wrote her life story in Pioneer Girl, but then changed her focus to stories for children.
4. Laura’s books represent a significant swatch of American history. Through story Laura shares with us what is was like to travel in a covered wagon, build a homestead, establish a town, and so many other aspects of pioneer life.
5. Laura’s book depict strong family values like industriousness, independence, frugality, hospitality, community, resilience through hardships, thoughtfulness towards others.
6. Laura’s books can spark discussions, such as:
- Every culture has its blind spots. What were some of theirs? What are some of ours?
- Every person and culture has good and bad points. What were some good and bad attitudes in the Little House books? (Good: industriousness, frugality, hospitality. Bad: wrong views of other races, Laura’s wanting to “get back” at others, particularly Nellie Olsen).
- What led to the hostility between settlers and Native Americans? How could things have been handled differently?
- Look at how far society has come in its thinking about other races over the years. But our racial attitudes on an individual and national level are still not what they should be. How can we grow in this area?
- Were there any signs in the books that attitudes were changing? (For instance, Laura’s family was treated by a black doctor at one time. Pa interacted with the Indians sometimes, assured Ma it was fine to do so, and in The Long Winter believed an Indian who came to warn the white men that a bad winter was coming).
7. Laura’s writing is realistic, not idyllic. Some have charged Laura with painting the pioneering family and life as idyllic. But…locusts? Blindness? Bilzzards? Wolves? Fire? Drought? Lack of food and resources? No, nearly every book deals with some kind of calamity. And Laura even realistically depicts sibling squabbling and parental tension.
8. Laura’s writing is excellent. Her stories would not have been read and loved all these years if they were not readable and enjoyable.
9. If we stopped reading people with flaws, we wouldn’t have anyone to read.
I agree with Katrina Trinko’s conclusion here:
Wilder — an amazing writer who poignantly and vividly depicted a crucial part of American history — deserves to remain honored as an icon of American children’s literature. By all means, let’s pair reading her with conversations about America’s past and what was right and what was not and what remains debated.
But let’s encourage critical thinking, not purging.
(Sharing with Literary Musing Monday)