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Almost 150 years ago, a young couple loaded a covered wagon with their few belongings and two small daughters and traveled from their home in Wisconsin to a promised land in Kansas. Coming to a stretch of rolling prairie near a creek, the father’s practiced eye sized it up and declared to his wife, “Well Caroline, here’s the place we’ve been looking for. Might as well camp.” As the little girls bedded down in the wagon that night, they felt the stillness of “stars shining down on a great, flat land where no one lived.”
That’s how Laura Ingalls Wilder remembered the first move of a childhood that would see many moves propelled by her restless father. As the family soon discovered, the land was not quite uninhabited: Charles Ingalls’ claim happened to be on an Osage reserve, near an established trading path. The Indians frequently passed by, often demanding food and tobacco and making Mrs. Ingalls very nervous. Once he understood that he had no legal right to his claim, Mr. Ingalls pulled up stakes and abandoned his “little house on the prairie” for greener, more legitimate pastures elsewhere.
His second daughter’s autobiography was never published, but its bones formed the framework for a series of children’s novels published in the 1930s. Like all classics, the “Little House” books clothe the universal in a particular place, time, and cast of characters. That’s one reason the American Library Association, in 1954, established the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award to honor other children’s authors who reached a similar standard.
The ALSC owes more respect to Laura Ingalls Wilder, who practically invented contemporary children’s literature.
But, as earlier reported in these pages, last month the Association of Library Services for Children (a division of the American Library Association) voted to remove Laura’s name from the award because “her works reflect dated cultural attitudes toward Indigenous people and people of color that contradict modern acceptance, celebration, and understanding of diverse communities.” The problem of dated cultural attitudes has simmered for years, notably in university schools of education. In their children’s-literature classes, future teachers squirm as they reread the classics they’d loved as kids. How to explain Pa Ingalls cavorting in blackface during an amateur minstrel show? What could they say to a little girl of indigenous heritage reading the opinion of Laura’s Kansas neighbor that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian”?
Apparently the answer is to smear the books, and their author, for not being suitably “woke” in the 1930s. Anyone is free to read them—so far—but a disapproving frown now hovers over the Little House, as it does (in some quarters) over The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird. The new name for Laura’s award is “Children’s Literature Legacy,” which seems artlessly ironic after erasing chunks of that legacy.
The dated cultural attitudes in the Little House books are a good deal more nuanced than the rationale suggests (see “A slanderous charge,” July 21). History itself is a good deal more nuanced, and beyond our comprehension. We are worlds removed from wresting a living out of virgin prairie, facing starvation, dying from an easily preventable disease, or losing everything in a grasshopper plague with no insurance to cover the loss. Keeping one’s nose to the grindstone leaves little time for thinking outside the box of conventional attitudes.
So our ancestors were blinkered and often racist—also determined, uncomplaining, courageous, and ultimately successful in laying the groundwork for a society where their great-great-grandchildren could sit in air-conditioned classrooms and denounce them. Where buffalo and native tribes once roamed are now towns and schools, libraries and library associations. We can criticize our forebears, but we also owe them. Judging them by current ideological benchmarks reduces them to caricatures and ourselves to placards for the latest catchphrase.
The ALSC owes more respect to Laura Ingalls Wilder, who practically invented contemporary children’s literature. And it owes more respect to contemporary children, who are capable of learning from the virtues of their ancestors while avoiding their faults; it’s called discernment. There’s a world of difference between discerning and smug, and the decision of the ALSC looks a lot like smug.