Little House on the Prairie: Racist or Not?

October 2, 2008

This week is National Banned Book Week. Right on schedule, my Google alerts box is filling up with mentions of Little House on the Prairie, banned for racism.

I’ve always been idly curious about this. Sometimes I’ve thought about it and nodded. I can see where the depictions of Native Americans can be construed as racist. Arguably, they are racist. Not that I think the book — or any book — should be banned. But as I considered it, I did admit to myself that taken out of context, an argument could be made that there was rampant racism throughout the “Little House” series.

But there’s that word: context. In the context of the day, Laura was accurately depicting the mood on the 19th-century American frontier. Ma’s fear. The reality of massacres. The Indians’ plight, forced upon them by the encroaching white men. For kids, I think such books present a good opportunity to educate them on the reality and danger of racism. We don’t want to clean up history; we want to present it warts and all so we can learn from it. People can get all hot and bothered in the name of political correctness, but I will always prefer flawed reality over the PC ideal. The biggest problem with revisionist history — and there are many — is that by allowing it we risk repeating the same mistakes. But mankind is flawed. We must use our misguided experiences to shape our collective education.

In light of all the banned book talk sliding into my inbox, I started thinking about this whole racism charge in a different way. I’ve been reading Little House on the Prairie to my daughter. The accusation of racism always rang a little hollow for me, I realized. Why was that? I’d read the series countless times between the ages of eight and eighteen. I decided to ask myself this honest question: What image of American Indians did the “Little House” series depict for me?

The words came in a flood. Proud. Beautiful. Calm. Fair. This might not be what Ma thought, but it is absolutely what Laura thought. Think of the lasting images of Indians throughout the series. Soldat du Chene. The papoose, so important and beautiful to the little-girl Laura. Big Jerry the half-breed, riding off into the sunset with his bright red shirt. Yes, Ma is racist (and as a mother I must say understandably so, trying to mother her children in the middle of such unrest). But if Ma is racist, isn’t Pa her counterpart? And whose side does Laura take? Whose side does the narrator take? What emerges is, in fact, a complex push-pull relationship as Laura has to make a decision about how she feels about these people she knows as Indians. And the author shares with me — the reader — that decision.

Laura likes Indians. She admires them. She feels badly for what’s happening to them. She does not say each of these things outright, although she does say some of them. By what Laura Ingalls Wilder, the writer, chooses to share about the character Laura’s thoughts about the Indians, it’s clear that to her, Ma’s judgment does not ring true.

I think that for young readers, the lesson here is not racism. It’s acceptance and respect.


Parenting “Little House” Style–If Only We Could

September 30, 2008

One of the most venerable online publications, Slate, has delivered my favorite type of writing: the kind that combines Laura Ingalls Wilder, modern times, and parenting all in one:

This tempts me to let loose the Laura Ingalls Wilder lecture. No, I won’t spare you. In The Little House in the Big Woods, when Laura is about 5, she gets one rag doll named Charlotte. One.

Here’s the full article.

Longing For Home?

September 24, 2008

Rebecca commented:

I remember all the comments in Malone of people marveling at the beauty, and I remember thinking, Okay… it just looks… normal. That’s how I feel about Pepin too. It just looks normal. Pretty, sure, but normal. But De Smet… those prairies! Absolutely awe-inspiring! I could never live there, but do I ever drink in the views while I’m there. Having lived in the mountains my entire life, I had never before seen anything to match the splendor of that flat open prairie before my first Little House trip.

I therefore find it interesting that you, who being in Kansas I assume see prairie-like land all the time, marvel at the beauty of places like Pepin and Malone that look much more like the kind of places I see every day. I guess it’s all beautiful, it’s just what’s new and different that provokes such inspiration.

Then DakotaGirl added:

I stand in awe at both De Smet and Pepin because neither are like my home state.

Both comments got me thinking. More than a little bit of my awe over the beauty of Pepin and Malone is rooted in my Bouchie-like disdain for the empty and perpetually windy plains. I’m never far from longing for the trees and slight breezes of the state I’m from. I do prefer the South Dakota landscape over my own, with its abundance of hills and even a natural body of water or two. But basically, yes, Malone and Pepin call to me because it’s what I miss. I was projecting. I’m glad it was pointed out to me.

Then I took it a step further in my head. Laura, after living in the rocky Ozark hills for over thirty years, incorporated the landscape of the land she grew up on so much into her autobiographical work it was almost its own character. Was Laura missing her homeland too? How much of her sentence choice was rooted in her longing? Was the beauty of those treeless hills and open sky looming perpetually in her mind, forever out of her reach, even as she made her home in the mountains? And was the Little House series in aggregate as much a tribute to that land as Little House in the Big Woods was to Pa’s stories?

It’s something I’ll continue to think about.

Although I love the looks of Pepin, it’s not the landscape that makes me think I’d be able to make my home there. It’s the people. More on that in my next post.

“Good Morning!”

September 9, 2008

“Laura had never noticed before that saying ‘Good morning’ made the morning good.”

More than any other book in the Little House series — with the exception of maybe The Long Winter — if I pick up These Happy Golden Years to consult for one reason or another, it’s difficult for me to put it down and not immerse myself in the story immediately. I think it’s because the book is so plot-driven, particularly in the beginning. Dismal shanty life, cold schoolhouses, hesitant children, homesickness. I read and read through the gray haze of melancholy, waiting, waiting, knowing Almanzo will–there he is!–arrive and save the day.

Best of all are the pages that follow, Laura’s first weekend home. Ma’s good dinner, Pa’s fiddle, family laughter, even “her sleep was deep and good.” When I’ve thought about which meal I’d want to share with the Ingalls family, this Saturday breakfast is always at the top of the list. Such warmth and cheer! Such happiness!

Every morning when my kids first wake up, whether I’m teasing them awake in their beds or they’re groggily shuffling up to me as I cook breakfast, my first words to them are always “Good morning!” I want my kids to be able to greet each day with enthusiasm and joy, and long ago Laura taught me the best way to do that.

My First Homesite

September 8, 2008

This week, at long last, I’ll visit Pepin for the first time.

Do you remember your fist homesite visit? I do. It was Independence. Seems logical, since I live in Kansas. But I’m on the opposite corner of the state. Worse, there’s no straight highway that runs from here to there–just a lot of twists and turns. Distance decreed that it made more sense to combine the visit with another trip, so when I flew home to Boston from Kansas City, I tacked on an Independence trip to make a roundabout drive home.

On the way home from the airport — normally a hulking seven-hour drive — I detoured south. I checked the hours of the Independence site in advance, since I knew I’d be arriving on a Sunday. All clear. As I wound my way south that June morning, my anticipation grew more and more taut. I followed the signs toward Independence. One sign made me almost stop short, a small rectangular green one on a bridge.

Verdigris River.

Every part of my skin that faced downward or touched the seat–the bottoms of my feet up to my shoulders–tingled with electricity. I was driving over the Verdigris! I briefly contemplated pulling over and making my way down to the water’s edge, but even as I did so the car continued to pull me forward into downtown Independence. Maybe later, I’d be back.

On Route 160, which ran right through Independence, I followed the signs through town and out the west side, turning south onto Route 75. Each new sign that dictated a right or left turn spurred my anticipation. I was out in the country now — no hotels, no gas stations, no Wal-Marts. Just hill after rolling hill of prairie. Truthfully the area wasn’t THAT hilly, but after a year of living on land as flat as the floor beneath my feet, even small hills felt sinfully luxurious in my field of vision. On each side of the road open pastures, alive with June wildness, backed up against rows of trees. Black-eyed susans — or what I decided were black-eyed susans — and other wildflowers I couldn’t name dotted the golden grass that whispered in the breeze. I drove more and more slowly, stretching out this introduction to Little House on the Prairie. The clear day revealed a cerulean sky so brilliant it infused the scene with the aura of omniscience. The Mona Lisa of skies.

I made the last turn and saw the cabin, set back about 50 feet from the rail fence that lined the road. I pulled onto the shoulder and a sign on the gate caught my eye. A hand-lettered sign.

“Closed for Father’s Day,” it said.

Laura As Memoirist

September 2, 2008

I spent six hours in the car yesterday — most of it by myself, which is all but unthinkable when you have two kids — so I had a lot of time to think. I was returning from the mountains in Colorado after five days of nothingness … no work, no pressure, not even Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Except Laura was there. She always is.

I’ve been doing a lot of memoir writing lately. Even though I didn’t hit a single computer key nor hold a pen for longer than it took to scribble a phone number, I’ve still been writing. As my journalism professor told me fifteen years ago, far more than the actual procedure of putting words and phrases together, writing is thinking. So as scenes have been running through my head, I’ve been writing. And in order to do so I’ve been reaching into the recesses of my brain, reconstructing scenes and dialogue and even facts. Just the way they happened. Or didn’t happen. It’s not always obvious which is the case.

I’ve gotta tell you — I have a lot more sympathy for our own dear Laura. Reconstructing her childhood for the world to share was remarkable, but to her, it could easily have been maddening. To invent dialogue from fifty and sixty years ago? To use real-life events to create a readable narrative? I’m only reaching back a fraction as long and let me tell you, it’s hard. I’m finding myself hoping that she didn’t put too much pressure on herself to tell the truth. And hoping for inspiration on how she avoided it. Because to do it so well, she had to. I like to think of her with her writing tablets, visiting in the afternoons with Rose, discussing what to remember and what was OK to forget. Even the fact that she worked with someone as fractious as Rose is astounding. (Family members rarely make for good student-teacher relationships. If you disagree, ask yourself whether you’d like your significant other to teach you to drive a stick shift. Or maybe that’s just me.)

Anyway, Laura, let me just say this: You’re a hell of a memoirist.

Last of This Week, First of the Next

August 25, 2008

As serious Little House fans, we all know that Laura Ingalls Wilder wasn’t particularly beholden to the absolute truth. And for the most part, this doesn’t bother me. I can forgive her plot discrepancies. I can accept her lapses of memory, even her deliberate distortions of fact. I don’t much care that she folded Stella Gilbert and Genny Masters into the amalgam of Nellie Oleson. And fudging Almanzo’s age? No big deal.

One fact that I didn’t think I’d have to give up was the day of the week on which she and Almanzo were married. He stopped for her on Tuesday, unexpectedly, and they planned to get married as soon as possible in order to avoid a big wedding by his family. They got married nine days later, on Thursday.

Or so Laura wrote.

As I came to find out, this was another fact Laura got wrong. In fact, it’s almost embarrassingly easy to dispute.

I was OK with all the other liberties Laura had taken as a writer, inadvertent or not. But finding out that she’d actually gotten married on a Tuesday, not the Thursday she’d written about in These Happy Golden Years?

I gotta admit that one hurt a little bit.

Happy Anniversary, Laura and Almanzo! “And the twenty-fifth of August had come again, and this winter and summer were the one hundred twenty-third year.”