Little House, Big Mess

Posted on 6 April 2018 Friday


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.

 

 

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