Little House, Big Mess

I’ve never publicly weighed in on the conversations surrounding the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder or on the proposal to change the name of the Wilder Award. I’ve recently put together some reflections and all this and thought they might be worth sharing.

 Laura Ingall Wilder’s works, like too many other books that have gained the stature of “classic”, are books that are handed down from generation to generation by those parents and teachers who have been enamored with the story’s transmission of White American culture and identity. In discussing how he reads the books to his child, Dr. James Noonan simply states, “And because the stories are so colorful and told with the wide-eyed wonder of a child, it’s also easy to be blindsided by the racism.”

I haven’t read or taught the series in years. I do know that in teaching the books, a teacher’s eagerness and excitement can carry the stories a long way, particularly when supported by the number peripherals that have been created to sustain the series over the years. Kelly Jensen commented on the lack of pacing and dated messages presented in the books pointing out that many students today have a keener sense of the biases presented in the books than in years past.

It will probably be more difficult for adults to reckon with these icons than it will be for children.

I think naming an award is quite different from awarding a book. When a book is award, its selection reflects the sentiments of that era. Information can be discovered in that time that obfuscates the books’ merit, or that of its author. An award, on the other hand, reflects upon the organization from which it originates, either through its purpose, through the legacy of the name which it bears, or both. As ALSC continues to re-define itself through the core values of inclusiveness, integrity and respect and responsiveness every aspect of the organization should be examined under this light, including the awards it presents.

Numerous scholarly and popular writings exist that relate evidence dispelling stories recounted in Wilder’s series.  We must remember that Pa was not Michael Landon. Rather, he was Charles Ingalls, the man who trespassed with his family on the Osage Diminished Reserve. Dennis McAuliffe describes him as a man who actively participated in annihilation and desecration of the Osage.

In Little Town in the Prairie, Pa is in blackface. This sort of minstrel performance is entertainment in which a white person paints their face black to imitate a black person and black culture. Zetta Elliott writes “Minstrel shows didn’t aim to accurately represent black people—they provided an opportunity for whites to live out their wildest fantasies by performing transgressive acts as blacks. Minstrel shows provided white audiences with what they desired most: confirmation of blacks’ inferiority and immorality (which justified their enslavement and mistreatment in a white supremacist society).” This exact sentiment is the essential flaw of the Little House books, and these books are Wilder’s seminal work

Although the books present a multicultural presence during the time when the western United States was appropriated, it presents them through a White lens. This lens is one that provides opportunity for young white readers (these books are written for white readers) to fantasize about the lives of Blacks and Native Americans in ways that confirm their inferiority and immorality, to paraphrase Elliott. Actually, in the stories, ‘Indians’ is used, never the name of the nation of people with whom Laura and her family come into contact.

Wilder wrote the series with her daughter, Rose. We don’t know how much of the books Rose wrote (or re-wrote), or what her political agenda might have been in making numerous substantive changes to Wilder’s writing (Woodside). Writing in The New Yorker, Judith Thurman states, “Rose had proved that she could romanticize whatever material she was given. She did some minor tinkering with “Pioneer Girl,” but, once it was decided to fictionalize the memoir as a children’s story—the idea had come from an editor who rejected the memoir—she took a more aggressive role. It varied in intensity from book to book, but she dutifully typed up the manuscript pages, and, in the process, reshaped and heightened the dramatic structure. She also rewrote the prose so drastically that Laura sometimes felt usurped. “A good bit of the detail that I add to your copy is for pure sensory effect,” Rose explained in a letter.”

The series itself is classified as fiction in every library, in the United States, yet they’re read as if it provides factual information on westward movement. On Manifest Destiny. It’s accepted as Wilder’s memory of growing up despite flaws pointed out by numerous historians and biographers.

Perhaps the books have garnered appeal because they seem to present the perspective of a young white woman developing a sense of liberation. Yet, we have a family that moves at the father’s insistence. Ma seems to not want to move again and again, but says very little. She hates the Indians. In fact, she continually reminds her daughters to wear their bonnets so that she won’t get dark (like the Indians). Laura’s world view, despite being formulated in the new territory, remains that of a colonizer, one that is out to control and master the environment. “Laura is applauded because she has given voice to the collective dreams and beliefs of her fellow white settlers” (Romines, 202). She never engages with the Indians or Blacks she encounters and really has limited engagement with local Whites. In promoting Wilder and her works, ALSC promotes the transmission of these ideas to young readers.

Having a major book award honoring a white women who perpetuates imperialism and  white supremacy has me wondering about underlying convictions of an organization composed primarily of white women. The message does not correlate with the stated core values, so which is true? If the values are those of inclusiveness and integrity (as I suspect they are) I would anticipate a quick and deliberate name change for this award.

If ALSC were to take the courageous step to remove Wilder’s name from the award, they would send the message to parents and educators across the country first, that ALSC stands firm in its core values and second, that these books are highly problematic. While Wilder’s works have indeed made a substantial contribution to literature, that contribution is not one that makes me want to share her works with any children, particularly with Native American or African American children. Debbie Reese, a major critic of the series writes, “There is no disputing the love and adoration readers shower on the series, but it is a blind love and a blind adoration that has ramifications for all of us. Thinking of a people as “wild” makes it easier to hunt and kill them. I’m thinking the uncritical embrace of these books is akin to planting seeds that will get watered later when someone deems it in America’s best interests to go to war…  “

I think award as currently named reflects quite poorly on ALSC.

What are your thoughts on this proposed change? ALSC has developed a survey to gather thoughts and opinions before the organization makes a final decision. The survey can be found here https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/JBYWG7F

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REFERENCES

Elliott, Zetta. “Minstrely is the New Black,” The Book Smugglers. https://www.thebooksmugglers.com/2017/04/zetta-elliott-minstrelsy-is-the-new-black.html

Jensen, Kelly. “Reading ‘Little House on the Prairie” As an Adult,” Book Riot. https://bookriot.com/2016/08/17/reading-little-house-prairie-adult/

McAuliffe, Dennis. Bloodland : A Family Story of Oil, Greed and Murder on the Osage Reservation. Council Oaks Books, 1999. https://books.google.com/books?id=7J7zbQDV9BgC&printsec=frontcover&dq=bloodland&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwim7qrH8KXaAhUL8IMKHZyvDvcQ6AEIJzAA#v=onepage&q=bloodland&f=false

Noonan, James. “Reading Racism : Or, How I’m Learning to Wrestle with ‘Little House on the Prairie,” James A. Noonan Ed. D. Blog. https://scholar.harvard.edu/jmnoonan/blog

Reese, Debbie. “Anita Silvey recommends LITTLE HOUSE IN THE BIG WOODS,” American Indians in Children’s Literature blog. https://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com/search?q=little+house

Romines, Ann. Constructing the Little House : Gender, Culture and Laura Ingalls Wilder. University of Massachusetts Press, 1997.

Thurman, Judith. “Wilder Women : The Mother and Daughter Behind the Little House stories,” The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2009/08/10/wilder-women

Woodside, Christine. Libertarians on the Prarie : Laura Ingalls WIlder, Rose Wilder Lane, and the Making of the Little House Books. Arcade Publishing, 2016.

 

 

16 thoughts on “Little House, Big Mess

  1. So sick of everything being ruined by applying a value to terms that were never intended. Why do liberals have to ruin everything?

    1. We always apply our values to whatever we do. We just don’t all have the same values. I’m not sure why this has to disintegrate to political name calling, though.

  2. For cryin out loud – I grew up with the Laura Ingalls Wilder since third grade. Yes – I’m from Kansas – I too left it for 35 years for work to Seattle Denver Ft Worth working for the railroad. I have returned two years ago and have come back to Kansas to roost. I have all these books and reread every few years as they’re wonderful to explain through her little world to having her own family. It is what it is – quit ripping apart every word from these precious books that were written on prairie life through the eyes of a small child!!!

    1. Thanks for you comment, Alice. I only read parts of the series as an adult. I didn’t return to it and re-read. Since you did, I’m curious to know what you see in the books as an adult that you didn’t see as a child.

  3. REALLY??Millions of people have read these books and no one had a problem till someone comes along to pick it apart because they have to look for things to get offended about. Ma deferred to her husband because he was head of the family-it is what ALL women of the time period did. And maybe Ma was scared out of her mind of the Indians, since they did in fact massacre entire families. Laura had no agenda here, she was only telling about her life so stop ruining it for all of us who have loved these books for so many years!!

    1. There have been many, many problems with the books over the years. Laura did have an agenda, everyone who tells a story has an agenda. Her agenda and her story, that of perpetuating white supremacy, “ruin it” for all of us who could have otherwise enjoyed these books. Numerous sources verify that Ma and Pa were trespassing on Osage land. This would be the corner of land the Osage were force to live on after the US government forced them to move. This forced movement was by no means a peaceful act, but one that was filled with violence and murder. If Ma was scared out of her mind, perhaps she shouldn’t have invaded the land where she didn’t belong. And yes, she would defer to her husband which makes me wonder why white feminists embrace this books so because it has such traditional gender roles in it.

      While “millions” may have not had a problem, there were so many who did from those who knew the real history of the era to the Native American and Black children who had to read these books for school. You do realize that Native American and Black children read these books, too?

      As we grow and learn, we come to see things differently. As a child, I would have probably enjoyed these books. But, I’m not a child anymore. I’m not embarrassed to admit what I liked or thought as a child. I grow, I learn and I change and because I was trained as an educator, I share what I learn. I do hope you did take the time to read through what I’ve posted here or some of the resources I’ve mention. I hope you’ve searched for scholars and biographers who are willing to support what you believe about these books since you feel so strongly about them.

  4. And go back to the first book and read about Dr. Tan, who was a black doctor with the indians. He treated the family for malaria and Laura talks about how much she liked him and how grateful they were that he came when they were so sick.

    1. I have only read one book in the series, but in reading about the books, I did read about Dr. Tan. Isn’t that an interesting name for a person of color, Dr. Tan? I wonder if he was a real person. In that book, how much interaction is there with the doctor? I’m curious to know how he was introduced in the book? How is he described? Don’t you wonder why he was living with the Native Americans? I do. And then, we have Pa in blackface…

  5. For anybody who is interested, I’ve written a lot about the books. If you go here, you’ll see all the posts that turn up in a search of my site:
    https://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com/search?q=Little+House+on+the+Prairie

    The doctor’s actual name was George Tann (two n’s).

    Millions of people have read and liked the books, but that doesn’t make the racism in them less racist, derogatory, or factually incorrect. I’m grateful to Edi for writing about them on her blog. I understand that millions have fond associations with them but we can move on. Here is a look at some excerpts from each of the books:
    https://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com/2018/02/big-news-possible-change-in-name-of.html

  6. I always appreciate your insight Edi.

    If anyone reading this feels the desire to defend the books, that was my first response when I first read Debbie Reese’s blog posts 10 years ago. I too “grew up” on these books – I still have my childhood set that i read and reread over and over again. However, my memories of reading them cannot be more important than problematic representations in the books. Understanding the problems with the books does not negate my memories or experiences in the past, it does very much inform my choices going forward in terms of why I do not promote these books.

  7. Judging art and morality of the past by the standards of the present is a guarantee that we ourselves will be found in the future to be artistically loathsome and irredeemably immoral.

    1. That’s an interesting sentiment. I think growth and development almost requires us to look back with new eyes and to look forward with those same eyes, hoping to do the best we can. I think in this particular case, I’m suggesting that the title of the award be changed to reflect the current perspectives of ALSC.

  8. Growth and development, and looking backward and forward with new eyes, does not require that books and authors which do not reflect current perspectives should be put down to the point of ‘don’t read,’ and taking their celebrated authors’ names off of awards. Here are two examples looking forward. First, by the year 2125, it is a foregone conclusion that people will be eating food based on plants/algae that tastes like seafood, poultry, and meat, and will look back at our generation as morally barbarian to be eating animals that were formerly alive. Shall all books that has people blithely meat-eating, or authors who admit to not being vegetarian, be consigned to the dust-heap of history? Do we really want THE HATE U GIVE to be erased because of the visits to Taco Bell and the pleasant aroma of barbecue? Or an author for whom an award is named who admits to having a chicken dinner? That’s the logical outcome of what is being proposed.

    Here’s another example. Every author and scholar could type their material on old-fashioned typewriters. Good books have been written that way, after all. Or, to write longhand. But instead, 99.9% of us are supporting the economy of one of the most censorious and politically repressive regimes on the planet, China, by doing our work on technology made there. Do we really want, 108 years in the future when everyone is 3-D printing their own voice-activated autowriters, to have the ALSC of 2125 to not-recommend all books and authors that dared to be written on, or who wrote on, one of these Chinese machines, or sent Tweets on a Chinese-made cell phone? That’s the logical outcome of what is being proposed with LITTLE HOUSE and the Wilder award.

    Those are just two examples off the top of my head; I’m sure we can come up with more. We need to be very careful at judging art and morality of the past by the standards of the present lest in the future we too be found artistically loathsome and irredeemably immoral.

    Thank you for this excellent conversation that you are moderating with grace.

    1. I don’t think these examples prove your point very well. Is it that you don’t like change, or that you don’t like change when you’re opposed to the concept upon which it is based? I know not everyone likes change. I know there are times I wish certain things would stay the same, but humanity (and capitalism) are predicated upon change and progress in terms of ideas and technology. Otherwise, we’d still be living in caves, wouldn’t we?

  9. So I guess the Geisel award will be next because he was product of his time. If we keep erasing our history we are doomed to repeat it. Leaving the names of the awards keeps dialogue open. Changing the name shuts the door on that dialogue. Every one has “skeletons” in their closet. I guess we can’t name awards after anyone for fear that issues will arise later.

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