by Corrie McCloy
When I was in elementary school, I passed the slow, hot afternoons of summer listening to my mother read aloud Laura Ingall Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie. The lives of Laura, Mary, Carrie, and their bulldog Jack seemed as real as my own. The nine-volume series conjured an image of 1870s America that stays with me today: Pa draining the sap of the maple trees to make syrup candy on snow; the wagon rolling across miles of grass high as a horse’s belly; coyotes howling during nights camped under the stars.
Wilder’s stories even permeated what and how I played. I pretended to churn butter like Laura, knit like Ma, and explore the backyard like Pa. The historical narrative came to life in Garth William’s charcoal and pen illustrations. One from the second volume stands out: two Native Americans, one clutching pieces of food, the other grasping an armful of furs, are sneaking out of the dim cabin into the sunshine outside. “[Laura and Mary] looked at that Indian taking Pa’s furs. They couldn’t do anything to stop him,” Wilder writes. The illustration depicts Native Americans as invaders, and at the time, I didn’t know different.
In response, this summer the Association of Library Service to Children changed the “Laura Ingalls Wilder Award” to “The Children’s Literature Legacy Award.” The association stated, “ALSC has had to grapple with the inconsistency between Wilder’s legacy and its core values of inclusiveness, integrity and respect, and responsiveness through an award that bears Wilder’s name.” By renaming the award, of course, the ALSC is not banning Little House on the Prairie from schools or libraries; it is choosing to no longer promote them as the paragon of American children’s literature.
Depending on your viewpoint, you may respond to this change with “Well, finally!” or “But why?” To many people, especially of the older generation, the ALSC’s decision indicates our generation’s increasing distaste for traditional narratives of American History, as if to disown our origins under the thumb of political correctness. Reading the books as a child, I always thought Little House on the Prairie represented a simpler, purer, albeit more difficult era, an era when families stuck together to endure the challenges of weather, poverty, and illness. When I revisited the series as an adult, I was taken aback by Wilder’s one-sided representation of minorities. I even felt guilty for not recognizing her racism as a second grader.
Dedra McDonald Birzer, a lecturer at Hillsdale College, protested the ALSC’s decision with her article in the National Review, “Librarians without Chests: a Response to the ALSC’s Denigration of Laura Ingalls Wilder”; the title alludes to The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis’s critique of modern education. She writes, “In favor of safe spaces and trigger-free zones, this country’s professional librarians seek to destroy the literary heroine that millions of girls (and boys) identified with and aspired to emulate. In doing so, they seek to destroy us all and re-make us in their own image…” Birzer argues that behind the name change is a cowardly impulse towards homogeny of opinions—political correctness—rather than interacting with historical complexities. In defense of Little House on the Prairie, Birzer argues that although Wilder depicts characters with a range of animosity towards Native Americans, Wilder as the author is not to be implicit in her characters’ opinions. In making her defense of Wilder, Birzer vastly underplays the racism in a scene with singers (including Pa) in blackface, labeling it “an unfortunate turn in entertainment.”
Like Birzer, many readers disagree with the ALSC’s decision on the basis of their devotion: devotion towards the book itself and the experience that book gave them. This attitude appears repeatedly in Birzer’s article, as she writes of how Laura is a heroine whom children seek to emulate. These readers’ sense of devotion derives from their own childhood entrance into storytelling and from their first imaginative immersion into another place, another family, another era long gone, when the sky was empty of jet planes and telephone wires. Laura Ingalls Wilder may be the Virgil to their Dante, and readers can’t bear to hear her described as racist lest their own early journey be polluted or invalidated. We may think we’re defending Laura Ingalls Wilder when we’re really just protecting our childhoods.
This devotion to childhood experiences is understandable, but precarious. Many readers may ignore racist content because when they read it for the first time, they were too young to understand it. Revisit Little House on the Prairie, and you may notice, amongst the elegant descriptions of pioneer family life, remnants of an attitude that viewed people of color, especially Native Americans, as lesser humans and certainly lesser Americans. Multiple characters state, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Perhaps even more questionable are the subtle misrepresentations, such as the Williams’ illustration that depicts Native Americans as devious and greedy. In the scene above referenced, when the tribesmen take the furs and food, Ingalls is referencing an historical treaty that was signed between the white settlers and Osage that entitled them to collect rent from the farmers squatting on their territory.
Many people may argue that, problematic as Wilder’s language may be, such was the historical mindset of the time and she was simply working within her current cultural paradigm. This fact, however, does not excuse that content. Just because an historical mindset existed does not mean we are obliged to mindlessly accept it. The 1935 edition of Little House on the Prairie included the line, “There were no people there, only Indians.” In the 1950s, a reader wrote Wilder, asking if she meant to imply that Indians were not people. Wilder wrote back, “Reading [the books] now it seems unbelievable to me that you are the only one who has picked them up and written us about them in the twenty years since the book was published.” In response, her publishers changed the word “people” to “settlers.” Even Wilder seemed to realize after the fact that her books could be read as racially prejudiced. Although it was clearly not her intention to write racist stories, it seems naïve to assume that changing one word can solve the problem. For example, Bizers writes, “Minstrel shows were standard fare across America in the last half of the 19th century, but descriptions of them certainly make for uncomfortable reading today.” These scenes make uncomfortable reading for adults; what kind of reading do they make for children?
For many children, especially minority children, the books can be disturbing, for others, numbing. For one 8-year old from the Upper Sioux Reservation in Minnesota, the language brought her to tears, prompting her mother to urge the school to drop Wilder from the curriculum, which led only to threats from the American Civil Union regarding censorship. White children in particular may become numbed to the racist tones within the books, especially if they are not introduced to other perspectives but those of the settlers. In my home, Little House on the Prairie was viewed so unequivocally as good children’s literature that no one initiated critical conversation about it—about what happened to the Osage tribes that the Ingalls heard on the prairie or of the fear an Osage mother might have experienced. I had little access to other books written from the Native American perspective.
If devotion to childhood nostalgia sometimes leads to absolute defense of Little House on the Prairie, it should also lead to concern over the perspectives and blind spots within the series. No one disputes that Laura Ingalls Wilder has written a powerful narrative that enchants a child’s imagination; should this not all the more prompt vigilance about what perspectives might be tied up within a seemingly benign story? If parents and educators want to continue to offer Little House on the Prairie to young children, they should also pursue intentional ways to engage the child in age-appropriate discussion about problematic content.
More importantly, however, they should seek to pair it with other books from the same time period written from other social and ethnic perspectives. In Little House on the Prairie, only white people have a voice. We should be devoted to placing in our children’s hands as many books as it takes for all people to have a voice. These books exist: Buffalo Bird Girl by S.D. Nelson, House of Purple Cedar by Tim Tingle, and the Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich. Dedra McDonald Bizer chalks up unease over the book to liberals seeking to “remake us in our own image,” but an unvaried diet of books written from the perspective of the dominant group in society will remake us in their own image.
I still feel nostalgic for the hours I spent reading Little House on the Prairie as a child. But I also wish that more adults in my life had initiated conversation about why Ma was scared of the Osage tribes, why Wilder portrays them as uncivilized or wild, and what happened to them when white settlers flooded into their territories. And I wish I had the same memories of being imaginatively enchanted with the story of an Osage family too.