In Defense of Laura Ingalls Wilder



I have always loved Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books. I read them over and over as a child and still occasionally reread them now. Both my children read and loved them. Now, society as a whole is telling me that Wilder is "problematic." I just read yet another comment on a blog post saying that the books are too problematic to be read to children these days.

I have issues with that.

There are a few specific reasons why Wilder is being labeled as such and I will address those in a minute but first, let's talk about the problems with deciding that anyone and any book that doesn't conform to a current worldview is problematic. I'll start by saying that yes, there can be books that are just wrong, books that are intentionally cruel and that denigrate people for the fun of it. That is not what we are talking about here. We are talking about books that were written in a different time period when people as a whole had different views. If we eliminate all books that don't line up with current attitudes then we are getting rid of a lot of very good authors. Shakespeare's play The Merchant of Venice portrays an antisemitic society. Dickens' Oliver Twist contains a Jewish man portrayed as twisted and evil. Just yesterday I read an article claiming that we shouldn't read Dr. Seuss because his political cartoons were racist. What about all the books that insist that a woman's place is in the home and she isn't fit for anything else? Once we start eliminating books where do we stop?

Do we have to agree with every attitude expressed in a book especially if it is a book from an earlier generation? Of course not. Does the fact that a book contains views we are uncomfortable with make it a bad book? Of course not. Previous generations, including our own grandparents and great-grandparents, frequently held opinions that would not be acceptable in the world today. That does not make our relatives bad people. It just makes them people of their time. Sometimes books are of their time as well.

That is where we learn. If we stop reading the books that don't agree with our viewpoint now then we are whitewashing the past. Read the books. Notice the things that have changed. Notice the things that haven't changed. Discuss things with your children if you need to. But read the books.

Now let's talk about Laura Ingalls Wilder specifically. Yes, I started out prejudiced in her favor because these books are such a huge part of my reading history. However, I then went back and looked at the specific issues that are being raised.

The first one is that the Ingalls family displaced the Native Americans. Well, yes, they did. So did most white settlers of the time. That is part of the history of this country. I am not saying it is right, I am just saying it is a fact. Was it necessarily viewed as wrong at the time? No. Would we do it now? Hopefully not. But by not reading about it we are denying it.

Next, the one problem that I view as the silliest. In Little House on the Prairie Laura and her family watch the Indians travel a trail near their cabin. Laura loved the little babies and wished she could keep one. People claim this means she viewed the Indians as other or as objects. All I have to say to that is have you ever been around a very small child? Most small children view almost anything or anyone as something they can possess. That is small kid thinking not racist thinking.

We also have the phrase that is frequently quoted: "the only good Indian is a dead Indian." Yes, that is unacceptable. But who said it? It was the Ingall's neighbor, Mr. Scott. Notice how Pa replies.

Pa said he didn't know about that. He figured that Indians would be as peaceable as anybody else if they were let alone. On the other hand, they had been moved west so many times that naturally they hated white folks.
Little House on the Prairie shows Laura questioning the settling of the prairies. Notice this passage.
"Will the government make these Indians go west?
"Yes," Pa said, "When white settlers come into a country, the Indians have to move on. The government is going to move these Indians farther west any time now. That's why we're here, Laura. White people are going to settle all this country, and we get the best land because we get here first and take our pick. Now do you understand?"
"Yes, Pa." Laura said. "But Pa, I thought this was Indian Territory. Won't it make the Indians mad to have to---"
"No more questions, Laura," Pa said, firmly.  "Go to sleep."

That is a nuanced little passage and I remember reading it as a child. That is why we read these books.

Ma hated the Indians. That is clear in the books and many people have a problem with that. But is Ma a bad woman? I don't think so. If you read diaries of the women that went west many of them lived in fear of Indian attack. If you were Ma you would have lived in fear of Indian attack just as the Indian women would have lived in fear of attack by the white settlers. Instead of labeling her as racist and terrible maybe have a discussion about why she felt that way. It doesn't mean you have to condone her hatred but you do have to put it in its historical perspective. Ma would have been familiar with accounts of Indian massacres. How would you feel on a prairie, miles from anyone else, with your little girls, when strange men walked into your house? You couldn't communicate with them. They lived a life totally foreign to you and you knew that sometimes white settlers were killed. You would be afraid. This is how many of our great-grandparents felt. Is it how we want to feel today--prejudiced against other races? Of course not. But just as our distant relatives were not all bad people so too, Ma was a product of her times and her circumstances.

Pa is also accused of being racist for participating in a minstrel show. Again, and I can't believe I have to keep saying this, put it in historical perspective. Minstrel shows were the popular entertainment of the day. As an indication of how popular they were, in the 1850s ten theatres in New York City were devoted solely to minstrel shows. Are they racist and unacceptable in our day? Of course. But they were obviously not universally understood to be offensive at the time Laura was living or they would not have been so popular. Your great-great-grandparents might have attended a minstrel show. Does the fact that they might have attended a minstrel show negate any good qualities they might have had? Progress is slow and judging people by current standards is unkind. I think it is interesting also to note Laura's reaction to Dr. Tan in Little House on the Prairie. He appears in the chapter in which the whole family is horribly ill.

Then the doctor came. And he was the black man. Laura had never seen a black man before and she could not take her eyes off Dr. Tan. He was so very black. She would have been afraid of him if she had not liked him so much. He smiled at her with all his white teeth. He talked with Pa and Ma, and laughed a rolling, jolly laugh. They all wanted him to stay longer, but he had to hurry away. 

Finally, Wilder used a sentence in Little House on the Prairie that gets quoted a lot in articles condemning her. She wrote "...there were no people. Only Indians live there." Yes, that is not good. However, that is something that, when it was brought to her attention in 1952, Wilder apologized for and changed. She said "It was a stupid blunder of mine. Indians are people and I did not intend to imply they were not." Why are we still talking about a quote that isn't even in the book anymore and that Wilder fixed and apologized for? Surely, people are allowed to make mistakes and to grow.

Children, and hopefully adults, are capable of understanding that attitudes and viewpoints change and that they do not always coincide with personal viewpoints. I asked my children about these books since I read them aloud when the kids were young and they have read them multiple times on their own. They were baffled by the controversy. These are books about the past and about past attitudes. They knew that when they read them when they were little children and they know that now.

I kind of hate the phrase but these books contain "teachable moments." If your kids wonder what a minstrel show is, tell them. If they wonder why Ma was afraid of the Indians, tell them. If they wonder why the Indians were being driven out, tell them.  Children are perfectly capable of understanding that people live and have lived in different ways than them. Isn't that what we want for our children? We want them to grow and learn. We want them to understand the past. We want them to understand people with different viewpoints. We want them to understand that good people sometimes act in ways we don't agree with. We want them to know that things change over time. We want them to know that viewpoints they hold right now might be disapproved of in the future. We want our children to have empathy.

This is the past. This is history. It is a fictionalized history but it is what happened. People went west. People weren't perfect. Little girls wore dresses and sunbonnets. Pigs were slaughtered. Wells were dug. Panthers were encountered. Blizzards snowed you in for a whole winter. Horses were trained. Cows were milked. Locusts ate crops. Life was lived by decent people living the best life they could in a different time.

Don't vilify them. Learn from them. Read about them.


13 comments

  1. I think part of the problem is a tendency to confuse things with a problematic content with things that should be eliminated/banished/avoided. I see that from both sides, both people who argue that something is problematic and therefore should be banished, and people who argue that something shouldn't be banished and thus can't be problematic. But surely it is entirely possible for something to be problematic and still worth preserving? Personally I find dated and problematic texts to be a great way to gain insights into past prejudices, and I think it is a good thing if someone points out problems that I missed. Not because it will (necessarily) make me avoid it but because it adds another layer to the text and gives me a better understanding.

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    1. I do think the term 'problematic' has, for many people, come to mean a text that should not be read. I also feel that many people believe that reading about past prejudices makes them prejudiced. The world evolves in outlook and will continue to evolve. If we abolish the past and refuse to believe our outlook may ever be outdated then we are blinding ourselves to change. You are right, we read to gain insight and understanding. Books of the past can help us do that.

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  2. Thought provoking post - thanks.
    How can we ever hope to learn the lessons from history if we stop reading books from other times? Reading Ingalls goes some way towards explaining current issues that the US faces with their indigenous population. I see with my boys (young men now) that they don't always get how different society was even just 50 yrs ago with regard to sexism and racism in particular. They are unable to draw the line between then and now to see how things have evolved, changed and continue to evolve and they just think that anyone who thought differently 'back then' was bad to do so. And I can't seem to get them to understand that their children and grand-children will be just as critical as they are now about the things that they think are perfectly normal and the 'right' way of thinking, but will be viewed negatively by future gens. But it's a conversation I keep trying to have despite eye rolling and the 'what would you know's'.

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    1. Yes! Many people can't see that what they view as the prejudice of the past was the enlightened view of the time. Attitudes continue to change and one day present views will probably be viewed as unacceptable. We need to look at the past and learn from it not refuse to read about it.

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  3. You notice this is happening more and more? Each societal generation looks through the past with self-righteous lenses. Imagine the future, when our posterity judges our works and words. We'll be in trouble, too.

    As you point out here, so much can be used as examples in history to continue to "better ourselves." But to condemn it and censor it is strange because when we have whitewashed everything and eliminated it from our sight, then what? What will we have to teach from or use as example or to compare? Yikes! Where will we be in the future if we cannot read or experience that which is difficult to digest?

    Anyway, I'm preaching to the choir. You already said it well enough in your post.

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    1. There is a real lack of tolerance toward the past. Of course we don't want to condone wrong attitudes but reading and learning about a time when they existed is not approval. And enjoying books that are about a time when attitudes were different is not approval of those attitudes. As you know. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

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  4. I always thought it was clear in the books that Pa (and Laura) did not agree with Ma's attitude toward the Indians, and that without it ever being said explicitly, that she was wrong. Part of that is of course the divide in the books, with Pa more often being the kind, understand, fun parent.

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    1. Yes, I always thought it was a clear view of different attitudes of the time. Ma was presented with understanding but it was obvious Pa did not agree with her.

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  5. Thank you so much for writing this. To me it is so important for us to keep reading books like this - how can we possibly learn from our mistakes if we just pretend they didn't happen? I have a very vivid memory of my Mum sitting me down to talk about racism before she would let me read Enid Blyton's adventure series. I loved those books but she helped me learn an important lesson at the same time and that's what reading should do.

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    1. That is exactly what reading should do! I never encountered Enid Blyton's books when I was a child but my daughter has read a lot of them after I brought a few home from a vacation in the U.K. I have read similar articles about Blyton that insist her books are unacceptable for the present day. Your mom sounds like she handled it perfectly.

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  6. I so agree with you, I love these books too. Even Enid Blyton's books have been criticised and re-written to be politically correct - it's crazy.
    Interestingly the loss of British influence turned out to be disastrous for the Indians as the British had treaties with them, promising them never to expand west and we never did.

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    1. I have read criticism of Blyton's books. I never read them but my daughter loves them. Political correctness can be taken a bit too far!

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