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A slanderous charge

(photo illustration by Rachel Beatty)

Culture

A slanderous charge

The American Library Association’s criticism of Little House entirely misses the mark

When I heard on Monday that the American Library Association had decided after 64 years to strip Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name from its children’s literature award, I immediately did two things. I pulled our battered copies of the Little House set from our bookshelf and fished some old VHS tapes of the TV show from a box in the attic.

Both have long been favorites in the Basham house. So much so, my 8-year-old daughter actually asked for, and received, a butter churn for her last birthday. (I have to remind myself whenever I’m annoyed by all the strange dishes of yellow gloop with carrot shavings crowding my fridge that I created this problem.) But I hadn’t personally read or watched either in many years. How could I have missed the “Anti-Native and anti-Black” sentiments the ALA described in its announcement? I spent the next two days doing a deep dive into Wilder’s work. 

Reading the supposedly offensive content in context makes the ALA’s charges of racism seem not just historically short-sighted but slanderous.

Handout

The complete set of Little House books (Handout)

The Washington Post, The New York Times, and many others have pointed out that in the third book in Wilder’s series, Little House on the Prairie, two characters state, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” They also report that Ma often expresses fear of Indians. 

What not one of those outlets mentions, however, is that far from endorsing such bigotry, Pa, the obvious hero in little Laura’s life, repeatedly contradicts his neighbors’ ignorance. “He figured that the Indians would be as peaceable as anyone else if they were let alone,” records Laura. She ends the chapter simply: “No matter what Mr. Scott said, Pa did not believe that the only good Indian was a dead Indian.” 

As for Ma, her husband’s simple admonitions display more goodhearted prejudice-busting than any graduate-level criticism: “‘They are perfectly friendly,’ said Pa. He often met Indians in the woods where he was hunting. There was nothing to fear from Indians.”

It would take much more space than I have here to describe all the complex and realistic encounters Laura has with Native characters that grow her respect and understanding of them. But a scene where Pa goes off to hunt a panther that threatens his daughters only to find an Osage man has beat him to it stands out as representative.

“The Indian pointed to the panther’s tracks, and he made motions with his gun to show Pa that he had killed that panther. … So that was alright. The panther was dead. Laura asked if a panther would carry off a little papoose and kill her, too, and Pa said yes. Probably that was why the Indian had killed that panther.”

Of course the indigenous characters aren’t all unrelentingly noble, because that would in itself be a stereotype. Rather they behave in varying degrees of friendliness and hostility toward the Ingalls family. Just as we would expect authentic human beings to do. 

Given that Wilder was writing in the 1930s, decades before reforms in the way we teach about westward expansion, she displays sensitivity far ahead of her time. In one particularly heartbreaking scene, Laura, too young to express what she’s feeling in words, sobs for the Indians’ forced relocation as she would for herself.

If anything, the novels go further than the 1970s TV show to educate and offer context on native history, like when Pa explains to Laura that the path by their house is the Indian’s trail because it was his long before they came. Or that what their neighbors’ fear is a war party is really a buffalo hunt Pa wishes he could join. Or that the Indians start a prairie fire not to harm the white settlers but to clear the grasses and make traveling easier, and Pa is glad of it. I could go on and on.

In fact, in a move that seems to subtly right a wrong, both the book and the first episode of the show end with the Ingallses finding out they will have to leave the territory. Pa isn’t angry at the Indians for this, but at the government that incorrectly told him the land was open for settling.

While it’s true that one book includes a scene with a minstrel show, this would have been common and uncontroversial in the 19th century and no sane reading could find any intention of malice in it. More revealing of the author’s heart than her use of racial terms we find offensive today (that, to be clear, still rise nowhere near the level of those used by Mark Twain) is her faithful depiction of the diverse community she found on the plains, like the black Dr. Tan who saves the entire Kansas settlement from malaria. In a later adult memoir, Wilder revealed that the real Dr. Tann also delivered her sister, Carrie. 

More revealing still was Wilder’s immediate, unmitigated apology in 1952 when a reader pointed out a line that suggests Native Americans aren’t people, something else The Washington Post and others failed to mention.

The ALA claims it dropped Wilder’s name for the sake of “inclusiveness, integrity and respect.” Yet the Little House novels, and the excellent TV series that was based on them, positively burst with these qualities. It’s the ALA, whose inclusivity apparently doesn’t extend to those who came before us, who has shown itself to be lacking in them. Those of us who dare put words on paper can only hope future readers will treat us with more generosity.

Children of all races and backgrounds will be poorer if we teach them to sneer so easily at the cultural contributions of artists past. The perceptions of earlier eras weren’t perfect, but we instill only arrogance if we suggest we have the moral standing to render perfect judgment on them.

Handout

Little House on the Prairie: The Complete Series (Handout)

Along with rereading the books, I hope you’ll spare some time in the coming weeks to pull up the old NBC series on iTunes or Amazon. I was amazed at how well every element of them holds up, from the acting to the production value to the natural inclusion of a Christian worldview that honors sacrifice, community, and loving neighbors of all races and creeds. 

They truly don’t make them like that anymore. And if we let groups like the ALA have their way, they never will.

Comments

  • AlanE
    Posted: Fri, 06/29/2018 03:32 pm

    Well done. A worthwhile rejoinder. But, it may turn out there's more to the ALA agenda than outing LIW as a racist. Such as the struggles of representing a minority point of view.

  • Xion's picture
    Xion
    Posted: Fri, 06/29/2018 04:45 pm

    Wholesome books that reflect the times, like Tom Sawyer, are declared unsafe for children, but the ALA promotes its Rainbow project promoting LGBT issues.

  • Midwest preacher
    Posted: Fri, 06/29/2018 05:51 pm

    Many of the institutions and organizations that we trusted to make good calls for us in the past have been taken over by radical revisionists.  They want to make it seem like we all think the same thing (or should).  Sounds like we need to make our own decision and watch and read what we think would be good for our families.  The comments of the ALA may change my attitude toward the books and the show but not in the way they intended.  

  • Janet B
    Posted: Sat, 06/30/2018 10:29 am

    Sounds to me like a letter-writing campaign to the ALA needs to start.

  • Narissara
    Posted: Sat, 06/30/2018 10:40 am

    Good idea!

  • Narissara
    Posted: Sat, 06/30/2018 10:40 am

    It depends on your worldview, I guess. If you believe the God of the Bible, you appreciate how Laura Ingalls Wilder shows every single one of us is made in the image of God. If you believe something else, the only thing you have to base your conviction on that racism is wrong is personal opinion. But personal opinion is at the bottom of prejudice in the first place.

    Wilder had to wrestle through issues we all face, and her perceptions are based on real-life experiences, not what academicians and activists told her what to think. She does an excellent job of making readers see our differences are largely cultural and skin color has nothing to do with it. World travelers, be it for business, missionary work, or just personal enrichment, tend to be more tolerant and accepting of other cultures. We can’t all do travel. And we certainly can’t travel back in time. Books open up worlds to us that we would never otherwise get to see. We would not be where we are in squelching racism if it weren’t for contributions from authors like Laura Ingalls Wilder. Suppressing their work is very likely to backfire and make us even more provincial and more ignorant.

    There’s a saying at our house, “I could excuse the arrogance if it weren’t for the ignorance. And I could excuse the ignorance if it weren’t for the arrogance.” ALA’s move displays both.

  • Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Sun, 07/01/2018 01:48 pm

    Maybe the ALA needs to reconsider its stance on internet filters.  The above seems a prime example of over-filtering.

  • RENEE WENDT
    Posted: Fri, 07/06/2018 02:00 pm

    I am on my fourth read through of the series with my youngest child.  They are excellent fictional history for my children and great family stories.  What better ways for children to learn about history, differences and consequences.  The ALA can remove the award and I will still recomment it them to all Mom's.

  • Woodlands Girl
    Posted: Thu, 08/02/2018 07:11 pm

    This article was right on point!!  Thank you so much!  I remember the books showed a mostly respectful attitude toward Indians, in particular.  I hadn’t remembered the part about Dr. Tan.  I’m glad you made me look it up!  Among other values, these books teach respect and care for others, and modern children will be the poorer if they miss reading them!