When I read of the decision by the ALSC, a division of the American Library Association, to strip Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name from their prestigious children’s literature award, I was outraged. Now that I think about it I am also insulted.
The seven volumes of Wilder’s Little House books trace one restless pioneer family’s journey as they push their way west. Wilder once said, “In my own life, I represented a whole period of American history. I had seen and lived it all—all the successive phases of the frontier, first the frontiersman, then the pioneer, then the farmers, and the towns.”
And at the age of 63, she determined to set it all down. The eventual result was a masterful accomplishment. The books are not memoir, but historical fiction, which is not to say they are in any way false. Quite the contrary. They tell a story that is historically and emotionally accurate, based on Wilder’s own childhood, crafted with such artistry that in 2012, The Library of America issued a two volume edition of the Little House books, acknowledging thereby Wilder’s place, along with Dreiser, Fitzgerald, Hemingway et al. in the canon of American literature.
SO WHAT’S THE PROBLEM?
It seems that the ALSC believes that Wilder’s legacy is inconsistent with their “core values of inclusiveness, integrity and respect, and responsivenes..”
It’s been a long time since I read these books, so I thought I’d take another look to see what on earth they were complaining about. Since their objections have largely to do with the treatment of native Americans, I decided to reread Little House on the Prairie, which covers the year the family lived on the Osage Diminished Reservation in what is now the state of Kansas.
What I found is just what one would expect in an accurate historical account of white settlers in 1870 living in Indian territory.
The point of view of the story is what English teachers like to call “limited third person.” As readers, we are only privy to what Laura can see, hear, or feel. We are not in on adults’ private conversations or thoughts. The disparaging remarks made about Indians are fragments of adult conversation which are overheard by Laura, never elaborated or explained by her parents. It’s clear that Laura’s ma doesn’t like Indians, but she is not specific and always deflects her daughters’ questions about them. Pa is wary but consistently sees circumstances from the Indians’ perspective. Honestly, I find nothing indefensible in these pages. As for “inconsistent with current values,” this is HISTORY, for crying out loud. Historical attitudes are not always consistent with current beliefs. And there’s no getting around that.
I am insulted because the implication is clear that the librarians consider themselves morally superior, having detected what they consider offensive racist treatment of minorities (they also object to the account of a minstrel show in a later book in the series) and so have decided that the books and their author are not entitled to the respect their children’s award signifies.
They assure us that this does not mean that they think we shouldn’t read these books if we want to or even love them if we do, but of course, it logically follows that if we do read them and love them, either we are just too insensitive to understand that these books are unacceptable or more likely we do understand and are simply bigoted racists ourselves.
The Little House books tell about people who are hard-working, self reliant, and courageous in the face of hardship. They take joy in simple pleasures and strengthened by their faith in God, they are confident in the future, always ready to move on, to see what lies ahead. These are the values that are currently under assault, most recently by the American Library Association’s supercilious dismissal of one of America’s most cherished and talented literary artists.
Come back Saturday for Part Two in which I’ll quote passages from the book to defend my position.