“Little House on the Prairie: Is Laura Ingalls Wilder Obsolete?” Part One

 Ilustration by Helen Sewell for  Little House on the Prairie,  1935, depicting an unclothed child as per Wilder's view, who was truly free.

Ilustration by Helen Sewell for Little House on the Prairie, 1935, depicting an unclothed child as per Wilder's view, who was truly free.

I discovered libraries in third grade. My parents had moved to the country, and in September, I found myself at a new school. During the opening days of class, I quickly worked through my assignments before my classmates had finished, and our teacher sent me to the library to check out books. I’d never been to a library before, but what a magical place! Book after book after book. And I could check out three or four at a time! I read them as my classmates finished their assignments.

After a few days, I was transferred to a different and more challenging third grade class, but the trips to the school library continued. It remained a magical place—a small, rounded room with a high ceiling—up about five or six stairs, tucked behind the school stage. The librarian—I never knew her name—recognized a kindred spirit and recommended one book after another. Biographies. Anthologies filled with poetry and short stories. Novels. I fell under the spell of Maud Hart Lovelace.

My mother was also a reader, and during the summer, we’d drive from the country to the outskirts of town where the bookmobile parked. Our new neighbor Opal Scott, who recognized the reader in me, recommended books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. One fateful day, I found one of her books—at the back of the bookmobile in the juvenile section: Little Town on the Prairie. When I realized the Laura Ingalls of the book had grown up to be the Laura Ingalls Wilder who wrote the books, I was inspired. Already I wanted to be a writer. So I read every book in the series—multiple times.

Over the years, libraries and librarians transformed my life. I grew up in a household with very few books—other than my dad’s Bibles and concordances (he was a preacher). But libraries gave me access to as many books as I could devour. Without libraries—and the librarians who guided me from one title to another—I’m not sure I would have become the writer I am today.

So the American Library Association’s recent decision to strip Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name from the medal that has carried her name for over sixty years defied everything I thought librarians stood for: literacy, literature, meaning, context, free speech. It seemed suddenly as if librarians had gathered on a dark, mean street to burn books—but from only one iconic author.

Was Laura Ingalls Wilder a Racist?

Yet the ALA’s action didn’t come as a surprise. In 1995, a member of the ALA’s Newbery Medal committee noted, “…let’s face it, no story about a pioneer boy in the West has a hope of winning a prize today, especially if he doesn’t have a 1990’s consciousness about how his home was taken from the Indians.”1

She added that the committee probably wouldn’t consider Wilder’s work worthy of Newbery consideration because it was culturally insensitive for contemporary readers.

Is Wilder’s work insensitive? Was she a racist?

On the surface—if you look only at words on the page and not their meaning or context, it appears that she was. As the Washington Post reported last month, the book at the heart of the controversy, Little House on the Prairie, “includes multiple statements from characters saying, ‘The only good Indian is a dead Indian.’”2

Yet Wilder’s stance on American Indians in her work is complex and subtle, often nuanced. It doesn’t skim over the surface of the hard, painful, undeniable issue at the core of how the American West was settled: the clash between native peoples and the white settlers who ultimately prevailed.

The Role of Historical Fiction

The ALA’s Wilder decision also relates to the role of historical fiction: should it attempt to present the culture and social conventions of the period it depicts or should it instead re-create the past in the image of contemporary society and its current social conventions?

 This dilemma becomes even more important for fiction directed at young readers. Should historical fiction for this age group instruct and teach? Or should it stimulate questions about difficult issues?

The popular perception of Laura Ingalls Wilder is that her Little House books fall into that first category—that they instruct and teach. This assumption, however, has its roots in the television series, Little House on the Prairie, which aired on NBC from 1974 to 1982, and remains in syndication today. The TV series is a more conservative and highly re-imagined interpretation of Wilder’s Little House books. It’s also didactic; usually at least one major character learns a predictable lesson every episode.

 But the characters and themes in Wilder’s novels are often gritty, rough-around-the-edges, and complicated. Wilder introduced a new kind of historical realism in fiction for young readers of the 1930s and 1940s, a realism that was intrinsically complex, despite the apparent simplicity of her prose. Her books definitely fall into that category of fiction that poses difficult questions for young readers. Yet she resisted the urge to give them answers; instead, she trusted her audience to draw their own conclusions about the dynamic, harsh, and sometimes bewildering frontier she had experienced as a child.

A Novel of Ambiguities

Little House on the Prairie, published in 1935, was Wilder’s breakout book in the series, and it illustrates the ambiguity and complexity of Wilder’s view of the frontier. Laura is, for the first time, clearly the main character in the series, a preschooler who is curious, excited, but mystified by “Indian country,” in reality—the Osage Diminished Reserve in Kansas.

When Ma reveals not just her fear but her dislike for Indians, Laura asks, “’What did we come to their country for, if you don’t like them?’”3 And as the story deepens, as it becomes clear to Laura that the Indians will lose their land because settlers like her family are living there, she becomes more confused. Why must the Indians move West? she wonders. Why does the government make them move?

Neither Ma nor Pa provide Laura with a satisfactory answer. Finally, Laura says to Pa, “’I thought this was Indian Territory. Won’t it make the Indians mad to have to—.’” Pa silences Laura before she can finish her question, and by extension, silences the questions that inevitably arise in the minds of readers.4 Wilder leaves this issue open to discussion.

Pa does address at least part of the complexity of the historic confrontation between cultures in the American West, and emerges with, for the 19th century, an enlightened view: “He figured that Indians would be as peaceable as anybody else if they were left alone. On the other hand, they had been moved west so many times that they naturally hated white folks.”5

Manifest Destiny

Still, readers can’t ignore Wilder’s larger thematic purpose in Little House on the Prairie and the remaining Little House books: to illustrate through the lives of one fictional family the concept of Manifest Destiny—the 19th century conviction that American citizens were destined to fill the continent from east to west and tame the frontier as well as well as the native people who lived there. As one of the less likable characters in Little House of the Prairie points out, “’Treaties or no treaties, the land belongs to the folks that’ll farm it. That’s only common sense.’”6 Although Pa disagrees with the man’s attitudes about Indians, he too embraces this idea: that the land belongs to the folks that will farm it. “’White people are going to settle all this country,’” he tells Laura, “’and we get the best land because we get here first and take our pick.’”7

But Pa and Laura do so with sadness and regret.6 Both believe in the humanity of the people whose land they’ve seized, and they recognize, at least on an emotional level, that white settlers are undermining the spirit and freedom the American West represents. At the end of Little House on the Prairie, Laura watches as the Indians leave Indian Territory, and she has one of those glittering moments of observation that makes the Little House books so timeless: Laura sits “…a long time on the doorstep, looking into the empty west where the Indians had gone. She seemed still to see waving feathers and black eyes and to hear the sound of ponies’ feet.”8

A Deeper Truth

Wilder uses the language of her childhood in Little House on the Prairie: papoose, tomahawk, half breed, red skins, white people, and that searing, racist phrase at the heart of the ALA’s decision to strip Wilder’s name from the lifetime achievement medal. Her vocabulary authentically represents the world in which she grew up, and reflects her commitment to realism in historical fiction for young readers—a decision not to sugarcoat the past.

But she balances that realism with a deeper truth, illustrated by an episode toward the end of the novel. Pa relentlessly hunts a panther until “One day in the woods he met an Indian. They stood in the wet, cold woods and looked at each other,” unable to speak “because they did not know each other’s words. But the Indian pointed to the panther’s tracks, and he made motions with his gun to show Pa that he had killed the panther.”9

The unnamed Indian emerges as a hero, a man even more skilled than Pa at hunting and tracking, a man who is – like Pa – a dedicated father. “Laura asked if a panther would carry off a little papoose and kill and eat her, too, and Pa said yes. Probably that was why the Indian had killed the panther.”10

Detractors of Little House on the Prairie rarely mention this scene, although it establishes a universal bond, a commonality between the two cultures. They are united by their love of family and its survival in the West. The scene is also unusual in the Little House series because it is one of only three in which Pa is indebted to someone else for the protection of his family. This happens again in By the Shores of Silver Lake when Big Jerry, described as a the French and Indian “half-breed,” arrives in the nick of time to protect the family from a lone desperado as they cross the Dakota prairie for the first time.11 And in The Long Winter, Pa is indebted to Almanzo and Royal Wilder for their seed wheat, which saves the family from starvation.12 It’s significant, I think, that in two of these three episodes, the Ingalls family is indebted to American Indian men.

Critics of Little House on the Prairie instead point to the scene where a pair of American Indian men enter the Ingalls cabin while Pa is away hunting. Although historical accounts from the period record several incidents like this, for Laura, Mary, and Ma, it feels as if their home has been invaded. Laura and Mary stand close to Ma as the men look through the cupboards. Wilder writes, “Those Indians were dirty and scowling and mean. They acted as if the house belonged to them.”13

Obviously, this isn’t an enlightened or balanced depiction of American Indians, but Wilder wrote the scene from the perspective of a preschooler, and the underlying emotion is fear—and cultural misunderstanding. When Pa returns and learns what happened, he responds cautiously—and doesn’t condemn the Indian men’s actions. Instead, he looks “sober” and says, “that all was well that ended well.”14

Given the historical period, his response is enlightened and balanced. As for young Laura’s description of the men who, from her perspective, barged into the cabin, it resonates with emotional realism; this is how a child of white settlers would initially respond in the 19th century to perceived American Indian intruders.

A Single Historical Clue

Toward the end of Little House on the Prairie, Wilder provides one historical clue to explain the settlers’ fear of Indians—a fear that weighed heavily on the minds of women like Ma and Mrs. Scott. After Pa argues against Mr. Scott’s contention that “’The only good Indian is a dead Indian,’” Mr. Scott answers this way: “’Well, maybe you’re right about it, Ingalls…. Anyway, I’ll be glad to tell Mrs. Scott what you say. She can’t get the Minnesota massacres out of her head.’”15

The chapter ends here, without an explanation. But the reference is historical: to the Dakota War of 1862 in southern Minnesota. Between four hundred and six hundred white settlers and American soldiers were killed during this six-week conflict; the number of Dakota Santee deaths is unknown. But thirty-eight Santee men were publicly hanged in December 1862, during Abraham Lincoln’s administration. It was the largest public execution in American history.16 This incident unfolded just seven years before the real Ingalls family moved to the Osage Diminished Reserve in 1869. Its memory would have been very fresh for both the real and fictional Caroline Ingalls.

Critics of Little House on the Prairie also fault Wilder for inflating the danger the fictional Ingalls family feels during the closing chapters of the book. Historian Frances W. Kaye maintains that Wilder misunderstood the nature of the Osage encampment near the family’s cabin, and that the “Indian war-cries” of Little House on the Prairie were simply part of “…traditional [Osage] ceremonies asking for success on their buffalo hunt….”17

Yet the historical record supports Wilder’s depiction of fear, tension, and possible hostilities between settlers and the Osage in Indian Territory. In January 1870, Osage Indian Agent Isaac Gibson wrote the superintendent of Indian Affairs that the Osage people “…could massacre the inhabitants of this valley in a few hours; and if they should be driven to do so this spring, I should not be surprised.” The superintendent agreed. If the Osages and settlers continued to live side by side on the reserve, he wrote: “…war may result therefrom….”18

Wilder didn’t inflate the fear and panic her fictional settlers experience in Little House on the Prairie, although she did rearrange the sequence of events in the novel, placing the “Indian War-Cry” chapter toward the end of the book. In fact, the rising tensions the chapter describes occurred in 1870, the year before the real Ingalls family left Indian Territory.

 But Wilder wrote fiction—not nonfiction. Tampering with the sequence of events allowed her to tell a more compelling story. But the emotional underpinnings of the chapter—and the novel—are historical.19

Beyond Little House on the Prairie

Little House on the Prairie isn’t the only book in Wilder’s series that faces charges of racism. The minstrel scene in Little Town on the Prairie, for example, is unsettling. Yet this form of musical theater was extremely popular throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, and aspects of its history are unexpectedly nuanced—despite the revolting and stereotypical images we associate with it. During my research on this topic for Pioneer Girl, for example, I learned that minstrelsy was embraced by abolitionists before the American Civil War; they used songs, comedy routines, and dances with abolitionist themes to influence public opinion against slavery.20 And as Brian Seibert writes in his definitive book, What the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing, minstrelsy’s influence on contemporary American dance, music, and theater is undeniable. To pretend minstrelsy didn’t exist is to censor decades of American history.

Different Times

So where does all this leave us? Are Wilder’s books racist and irrelevant? Are the Little House books too offensive for young readers? And is the ALA correct in saying that the “anti-Native and anti-Black sentiments in her work” undermine their literary value? After all, as so many people are quick to point out today, “We live in different times.”

Well, of course we do.  

But living in a “different time” shouldn’t mean that we automatically relegate any work of literature from a “different time” to the trash heap. Historical perspective gives us wisdom, understanding, knowledge, and insight—not just into the past, but into the present and future.

And can we say that the fictional Mr. Scott’s declaration—“The only good Indian is a dead Indian”—is any different than the current president’s multiple pronouncements against immigrants? “You wouldn't believe how bad these people are,” Donald Trump said recently. “These aren't people. These are animals."21

It seems to me that an informed, contextual reading of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books has never been more relevant. As I said in a post last month, pretending racism didn’t exist in our history is no way to prepare young readers for the racism we must combat now.

What is perhaps most disappointing is that in issuing this decision, the ALA has fallen into a Trumpian trap, basing its decision not on context, history, or meaning, but on a superficial and even sensationalized interpretation of Wilder’s work. Surely librarians, of all people, should encourage young readers to think deeply and intelligently about controversial subjects. Purging offensive and inconvenient truths from the past is no way to deal with offensive and inconvenient truths in the present. It amounts to censorship, something I’ve longed assumed the ALA opposed.

Careful readers of Wilder’s work won’t find easy answers in the Little House books. But we shouldn’t expect children’s books to provide easy answers to historical issues that are complex and uncomfortable—and which should continue to haunt contemporary readers, old and young. As Madeleine L’Engle observed, “…children are willing to accept theological and philosophical concepts that the adult will not accept. Children are willing to go into this world of darkness…. They’re still brave. They still have courage.”22

Perhaps this is a truth the ALA has forgotten.


Notes

1. Hazel, Rochman, “Children’s Books, Salamancha’s Journey,” New York Times, May, 21, 1995.

2. Meagan Flynn, “Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name stripped from children’s book award over “Little House” depictions of Native Americans,” The Washington Post, July 5, 2018.

3. Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House on the Prairie (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), p. 47.

4. Ibid, p. 236-237.

5. Ibid, p. 284.

6. Ibid., p. 211.

7. Ibid., p. 237.

8. Ibid., p. 311.

9. Ibid., p. 262.

10. Ibid., p. 262.

11. Laura Ingalls Wilder, “By the Shores of Silver Lake (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), p. 64.

12. In On the Banks of Plum Creek, Mr. Nelson comes to the family’s aid to put out a tumbleweed fire. But Pa is away—earning money in the East after grasshoppers destroyed the wheat crop. Mr. Nelson’s action is generous and courageous, but his actions don’t upstage Pa since Pa is absent.

13. LIW, Little House on the Prairie, p. 233.

14. Ibid., 234.

15. For more details on the Dakota War of 1862, see Laura Ingalls Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, Pamela Smith Hill, ed. (Pierre, S.D.: The South Dakota State Historical Society Press, 2014), p. 64.

17. Frances W. Kaye, “Little Squatter on the Osage Diminished Reserve: Reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Kansas Indians,” Great Plains Quarterly, 2000), p. 134. What Kaye fails to mention, however, is that within the pages of Little House on the Prairie, Pa initially believes the Osage are gathering for their spring buffalo hunt. He tells Mr. Scott and Mr. Edwards that the settlers have nothing to worry about (Little House on the Prairie, p. 285). Later he realizes the situation is far more serious than he initially thought.

18. Quoted in Berlin B. Chapman, “Removal of the Osages from Kansas, Part One,” Kansas Historical Quarterly, August 1938, pages 287-305.

19. Pioneer Girl follows the chronology of the historical record, which indicates that Wilder made a conscious, artistic choice when she rearranged the sequence of events in Little House on the Prairie.

20. For a fuller discussion of minstrelsy, see Pioneer Girl, p. 254.

21. Julie Hirschfeld Davis, “Trump Calls Some Unauthorized Immigrants ‘Animals’ in Rant,” the New York Times, May 16, 2018.

22. Madeleine L’Engle, Herself: Reflections on a Writing Life, Carole F. Chase, ed. (Colorado Springs, CO: Shaw Books, 2001), p. 174.