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Tagged with " Little House on the Prairie"
23 Mar
2018
Posted in: Diversity
By    5 Comments

Racism in the “Little House” Books?

Plains Indian, Buffalo Hunt painting John Stanley

Laura Ingalls Wilder is in the book news again.  There are calls to remove her books from children’s libraries!

The American Library Association (ALA) is considering removing her name from their life-time achievement in children’s literature award. The librarians are re-considering the name of the medal based on the treatment of Native Americans and African Americans in the Little House books. Their concern is the conflict of the ALA vision to “respect and honor children’s families’ history” with the values of respect, inclusiveness and integrity with the racism depicted in the books.

Caroline Fraser, author of Wilder’s historical biography, Prairie Fires writes in an article in the March 14 issue of the Washington Post, that “no book, including the Bible, has ever been ‘universally embraced.'” Those who have decried the white supremacy which lies at the heart of so many children’s books, have demanded that the books be removed from school libraries. Some have been motivated by a story Fraser reports of an 8-year old Native American girl came home in tears after hearing the story read in school. Others have admonished publishers to address the racial imbalance in children’s literature by publishing more stories about Native Americans or African Americans.

Indeed, Wilder’s most famous novel, “Little House on the Prairie” (1935) has inspired both disapproval and devotion. Many of us grew up enamored by the sentimental description of family values in the Little House stories, but not all of us are white. Fraser tells about an immigrant girl born in Saigon attracted to the story and how Hmong families from Laos living in Walnut Grove were drawn by one girl’s devotion to the television show. The town features a public mural with a smiling Laura alongside a Hmong woman in traditional dress.

African American family, historic photo c. 1930's, packing car to leave

Publishing more books and stories for children with Native American, Hispanic, African American or other ethnic perspectives is incredibly important to understand today’s diverse world. But, should the name of the medal be changed or the books removed from school libraries because they are racist? Perhaps changing the name of the medal is not wrong. It certainly is not censorship. It might be argued that it is acknowledging the cultural shift that no longer recognizes or rewards books with such blatant racism.

In contrast, removing the books from libraries or refusing to read them to elementary school children is not only censorship but denies all children the opportunity to learn through story the history of homesteading as well as the promotion of white settlement which violently took over Native American lands. I agree with Fraser that the answer to the racism of Wilder’s books is not to ban them but to provide the opportunity to learn that history is interpreted from cultural definitions and perspective. How exciting it would be to have the opportunity to learn about the white cultural perspective current during Wilder’s life. Imagine adding to the conversation, with alternative cultural viewpoints from the Native Americans who were losing their traditional lands or the African Americans who were just freed from slavery.

What is your opinion?

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7 Feb
2018

Laura Ingalls Wilder, American Author

Did you read one of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House book series when you were growing up? Or perhaps you watched the “Little House on the Prairie” television show based on her life which aired between 1974 and 1982.

There was only the enormous empty prairie, with grasses blowing in waves of light and shadow across it, and the great blue sky above it, and birds flying up from it and singing with joy because the sun was rising. And on the whole enormous prairie there was no sign that any other human being had ever been there…In all that space of land and sky stood the lonely, small, covered wagon (From Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder).

Laura Ingalls Wilder circa 1885

Laura Ingalls Wilder, circa 1885 (Wikipedia)

Today, February 7 is Laura Ingalls Wilder‘s birthday. She was born in 1867 near Pepin, Wisconsin. In my research and writing of Sarah’s Secret, I stood on the shoulders of this amazing woman who persisted in revising her writing before she achieved the success for the beloved autobiographical sages of the Great Plains. This connection was especially vivid for me in writing Part Two of Sarah’s Secret, much of which takes place on the prairies of Kansas, the setting for Little House on the Prairie. I called up images in my imagination from her writing as I imagined my character riding across Kansas.

Wilder’s family homesteaded in Dakota Territory. Their life on the prairie as homesteaders was grueling with many similarities to the life of my grandparents who inspired Sarah’s Secret. Like my grandparents, who also homesteaded on the Great Plains, the Ingalls family faced severe hardships of blizzards, near starvation and poverty, the challenges that became stories of triumph in the Little House series.

Wilder was also a teacher like my grandmother a few years later. In 1882 Laura Ingalls passed the test to obtain her teaching certificate. At 15 years old she taught in a one-room schoolhouse about 12 miles from her parent’s home. The family friend, Almanzo Wilder, who was sent to bring her home for weekend visits became her husband in 1885. She quit teaching to raise children and work the farm with Almanzo. Her daughter, Rose, was born in 1889. They, too, faced relentless challenges of illness, death and poverty before they ultimately settled and farmed in the Ozarks near Mansfield, Missouri in 1894.

But it was not until the 1920’s with encouragement from her daughter, Rose, did Wilder attempt to write her first autobiography which was rejected by publishers. Wilder was determined to succeed and like authors today, she reworked her writing over and over. In 1932, she published the first book Little House in the Big Woods. She completed the eighth one of the series in 1943 when she was seventy-three. She died in 1957 on the farm she and Almanzo had settled sixty years earlier.

Today, on her 151st birthday, I honor this American woman author writing stories of the challenges and triumphs of homesteading on the Great Plains. Laura Ingalls Wilder is an inspiration and role model whose persistence won her hard-fought success in a male-dominated profession.

I just purchased Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline  Fraser, a historical biography. The description says that the true saga of Wilder’s life has never been told and that this book fills in the gaps in Wilder’s biography. Needless to say, I am anxious to read it. Look for a review in the near future.

What are your memories of the Little House book series or the television program “Little House on the Prairie?”

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