Political Correctness vs. Little House on the Prairie
You may have heard about this in the news this week. The American Library Association voted to remove the name of Laura Ingalls Wilder from their children’s literature award due to her conveyance of “stereotypical attitudes” about Native Americans.
Over the last decade or so I’ve almost become numb to the absurdity of political correctness in our culture and institutions, so I don’t generally get worked up about these things anymore. But this one struck a nerve with me. It felt personal.
I never read the “Little House” books growing up; probably because I was a boy with two brothers and I generally thought of them as “girl books”. It wasn’t until my daughters were a few years old that I started reading the books to them, and I instantly liked them. Since then, I couldn’t begin to count the number of times I’ve read this series out loud to my daughters. Our family debates sometimes about the best book in the series but can never agree (I vote for The Long Winter).
I recognized early on how talented of an author Laura Ingalls Wilder was. These books are called “Children’s Literature”, but I think that’s an understatement. Wilder is able to write in incredibly simple prose that children can understand and enjoy, yet still conveys deep emotions and paints a vibrant picture in your mind of the Ingalls’ family’s life. Her books do a better job than anything else I’ve read in helping to understand what American pioneer life was like. It was harsh, yet beautiful. Full of hope, yet riddled with crushing disappointment.
For a Library Association to remove Wilder’s name from an award because of statements in “Little House on the Prairie” that are historically representative of the time period the book was written about (this is an autobiography of Wilder’s life after all) is a travesty and a great disservice both to her as an Author, and to the countless of people who have learned so much from her books.
What especially troubles me about this decision is how shallow it is. The fact is that in the late 1800’s the relationship between pioneers and Native Americans was complex, and there were no easy solutions. Wilder’s book actually does a very good job of conveying this complexity. While Wilder’s “Ma” says that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” (a common saying among White pioneers who feared for their lives from the Indians), her “Pa” doesn’t agree with her and encourages her to be reasonable with them. Multiple times he seeks to make peace with the Indians and tries to get his fellow pioneers to give them the benefit of the doubt. And while Pa does embrace the idea of Manifest Destiny (that the government must push the Indians out so the White settlers can come in) he has a respect for them and is ultimately sad when they do leave. In fact, the scene in the book where thousands of Indians on their ponies ride past Ingalls’ house on their way Westward is memorable for the way she conveys the great sorrow that she and Pa feel as they watch.
This is all historically accurate and written in a way that is perfectly suited for having intelligent discussions with children about this time period. It is intellectually vapid to think that instead of teaching actual history to our children we can simply erase all traces of everything that doesn’t conform to the mindset of 21st century America. Wilder’s characters are not one dimensional, just as history is not one dimensional. Sadly, I suspect an unspoken, but underlying, reason the ALS removed Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name from this award is that they would like to move away from having children read and learn about American history at all. Especially American history as filled with traditional values as Wilder’s books are.
One of the greatest joys that we’ve had in homeschooling our children has been learning with them about American history through Children’s Literature.
Understanding what it took to produce this great country that we live in, the incredible spirit of the founders and the pioneers (like Wilder’s family), and how fortunate we are to be here. This also includes having open, objective conversations with them about dark times in our history: slavery, Civil War, removal of Native Americans, etc. Rather than avoiding them, books like Little House on the Prairie help us have these conversations intelligently.
So, dust off your Laura Ingalls Wilder books, or if you don’t have them, I encourage you to purchase the whole set. Read them to your family, or your Grandkids, or read them on your own.
You will be a better person for reading of the hard work, perseverance and love of Pa, Ma, Laura, Mary, Carrie, Grace and all their friends and family.
I guarantee it.
No matter what the American Library Association says.