little lessons on the prairie

little lessons on the prairie

So I’ve been rereading my favorite books from childhood, the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  I started reading the first few with my children and then I got caught up, so I’m finishing the series.

You may recall that due to some racist elements in her work,the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award bestowed for excellence in children’s literature given by the ALSC (Association for Library Service to children) had its name changed to the Children’s Literature Legacy Award.    

Personally, I think it’s fine that this has happened.  It’s just a silly award. Name it whatever you want, I guess.  But I sure do despise this tendency to remove anyone even the least little bit historically problematic from polite society.  Because regardless of what the ALSC say – that they aren’t calling for her books to be banned, that this isn’t censorship – she’s gone.  Outta here. And she’s not coming back any time soon. Given the current social atmosphere, removing Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name from this award (and the controversy it triggered) is really effectively banning her books.  Parents will stop buying them and kids will stop reading them. I would not be at all surprised if Wilder disappears from schools everywhere over the next few years.

And that, I’m not ok with.  The Little House books were of critical importance to me as a child.  They were my best friends when I had no one and nothing else, they molded me in ways I probably couldn’t even begin to unpack.   To attack the Little House books as racist, to eliminate them from the pantheon of great children’s literature as somehow harmful to children, is in my opinion a mistake.  While it is obvious that a few elements of the books are gross and wrong, there is still great value in them – indeed, even in the gross and wrong parts – and it would be a shame to see children denied the experience of reading them.

Here’s a Vox piece that does a pretty good job of illustrating why I still see a lot to love even in the unsavory parts of Little House, while somehow simultaneously missing the entire point.    The author agrees that there is something valuable to be gleaned even from the darker parts of Little House, believing just as I do that reading them forces people to acknowledge the darker side of the pioneer mythos, but then goes on to fail to learn the biggest lesson of all.  She writes (as Laura would say, in a childish hand) “Pioneers used a prejudice against Indians to steal their land, and this was racism.”

The author of this piece claims that prejudice was some sort of calculated strategy that people were actively adopting – that the pioneer’s fear and hatred was caused by racism instead of the other way around.  Oh, those pioneers.  They had a silly prejudice, those big goofy gooses, and the reason they had that prejudice was obviously because they wanted to steal the Indians’ land!   The author asserts that their prejudice was completely baseless and was spun from thin air to justify their own bad behavior.  Pioneers like Ma Ingalls could certainly never have had some legitimate reasons to fear, even hate Native Americans (reasons that felt fully legitimate to HER, I mean).  Right? But whenever you put two groups of people whose members are actively killing one another, of course there will be fear and hate. The reverse is certainly true and none of us blame Native Americans for fearing and hating whites.  

Now, we may look back at history with our modern sensibilities and theorize that the pioneers never should have been there, should never have stolen the Natives’ land, and that the tribes were entirely justified in fighting back against these invaders.  And we’d be entirely correct in doing so.  But the fact was the pioneers were there, in that place and time, whether they should have been or not. They wanted to live just like you and I want to live and regardless of what we believe with the benefit of a century of hindsight, they believed they were entitled to be there.  Not only did they feel entitled, it is only natural to have bad feelings towards people who you fear might kill you at any point in time. If any one of us had been put in that same situation, we would have felt the same. Racism is not an excuse people conjure up to justify bad behavior. It is not an affectation or a pretense.  Racism is a mindset people develop when their backs are up against the wall.  We are all subject to the tendency. The seeds for racism are with us all and we’re no better than those who came before us.  We just have the luxury of living in the modern world where we have less to fear.

It is a natural characteristic of humankind to hate and fear those who we perceive as other from us, even more natural to hate and fear those we perceive to be our enemies.  It doesn’t make it right, but it is natural. It is in human nature to behave that way. ALL of our human nature. Bad people, good people, me, you, Gandhi, Hitler and Pa Ingalls himself.  From this wellspring of human nature that we all share, racism and lots of other nasty isms and sins are born, and we are all subject to it. Racism is not something that occurs in a passionless vacuum, it’s not a dry, calculated political tactic people choose to justify bad behavior.  No one makes an informed and rational decision to embrace racism to explain away taking land or resources from another. Racists feel fully entitled to their racism, that’s why it’s so hard to overcome. People have reasons for all their isms that they think are sound and that is why these isms are so damn dangerous – we feel like our isms are right, noble, good, and supported by hard cold facts that those people, whoever those people are, are just not like us.

That is the real lesson of the objectionable parts of the Little House books.  It is that prejudice can be something that afflicts people like you and me, people who aren’t bad people, who are in fact good people, but who are products of a particular place and time and if we had been in that place and time we would have been and thought and felt and acted the exact same way.  We are not any more evolved than Ma Ingalls, nary a one of us. (BTW, in the Little House books, Ma’s fear of Indians is painted as old-fashioned, even irrational; both Laura and Pa are portrayed as far more enlightened where Indians are concerned.)  We are simply lucky enough to live in a place and time where we know better and have other options. To say that prejudice was an active choice that Laura Ingalls Wilder and the other pioneers made, is putting the cart before the horse and the chicken before the egg.  

Speaking of, another terribly racist book I read and adored as a child was The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald.   It’s set in Washington State where I grew up; in fact I later married a man who grew up on the rather strangely named “The Egg and I Road”, across the street from the location of the farm in the book.  (Ma and Pa Kettle, iconic characters that you may not know originated from The Egg and I, were real people – whose descendants now run an organic dairy farm in the same location they lived during the events of the book).  After I read The Egg and I for the first time, my stepmother told me that a family friend hated the book because he was Makah and the Makah were excoriated in the book.  And it’s true, they are; but I hadn’t even noticed that part. It was shocking to realize that something I had not even paid attention to, that had not even registered with me, had hurt someone I knew.  It was an early and valuable lesson that not everyone views things from the same perspective, a lesson I never would have received if I had not been allowed to read the book. If my stepmother – a children’s librarian herself, actually – had stepped in and taken the book from me when she saw it in my hand or removed it from the shelf so I never even knew it existed, I’d never have had to look my own privilege in the face at such a young age.

I recently reread The Egg and I as an adult.  The descriptions of the Coastal Native Americans in the book are indeed awful.  But I was surprised to discover that there was context to the racism. It wasn’t even remotely cut and dry problematic as people make this book out to be.  MacDonald was clearly demonstrating how badly the coastal tribes had been affected by the disruption of their culture in a way that preachier, more goody-two-shoes stories do not.  The Native Americans depicted in The Egg and I were not noble savages; they were not the depersonalized heroic stereotypes we have come to expect from modern fare.  The characters in the book – all of them – have serious, severe character flaws, and in the case of the the Native Americans, those flaws are directly caused by what white people did to them.  Being driven from their homes and their way of life caused a breakdown of their social fabric to such extent that they were destroyed by it. This reality is not skirted, it’s looked dead in the face and fully reflected upon.  It’s a valuable lesson that shouldn’t be whitewashed from history.

At the time the book was set, Betty MacDonald was a nineteen year old girl who found herself in a truly terrible situation.  She makes light of things because The Egg and I is meant to be humorous, but her life was incredibly rough (soon after, she divorced her husband and walked several miles through the forest carrying an infant and a toddler to escape).  Recall that Laura Ingalls Wilder was also a young girl in a very precarious, even brutal situation – it is no exaggeration to say that the Ingalls family could have died at any time and nearly do on several occasions  My point is not that being young or having a difficult life justifies racist viewpoints, not at all. My point is that you can plunk down any 19 year old person into a rotten place and time and they will sometimes form opinions that we older and wiser people who have every benefit of modernity would not.  Just like Ma Ingalls. It is human nature to have prejudices and to not always rise above them, and it’s a simple fact that as life gets harder, the easier it is to succumb to our darker instincts. We ignore this reality at our own peril. By pretending that racism is an active choice perpetrated by irredeemably evil people because we never read any source material in which we see the casual, accidental racism of otherwise good people, we never have to face the truth that we have that tendency within us just as our ancestors did.  

Even if we remove all problematic accounts from our worldview and replace them with politically correct and sanitized literature, we will never remove this tendency from human nature.  Humans are a set of behaviors and one of those behaviors involves making snap judgments about others based on their most obvious external features and then sticking with those snap judgments even when you’re proven wrong about them.  Betty MacDonald herself understood this. It you ever read her books, which are mostly wonderful and should be read more widely than they are, a good part of them is her judging other people from various walks of life in a lighthearted, not-uncharitable way, while being simultaneously judged by them.  “Ha-ha!” MacDonald seems to be saying, “Isn’t it funny how people are, look at how small-minded we can be sometimes, and don’t we all feel perfectly justified in our small-mindedness?”) By setting herself up as victim and villain, she reveals just how silly and wrong it is to judge others and how arbitrary our criteria really are.  The everyday racism in MacDonald’s books is not only historically accurate, but is actually a great takedown of the entire concept of racism because it does it from the inside out, revealing it as being just as silly as a person judging someone on the stylishness of their wardrobe.  Betty MacDonald’s books, despite their flaws – indeed, in no small part because of them – are scathing critiques of the human animal. And we would miss that perspective if we tossed her books on the dustheap due to a kneejerk definition of what is offensive.

Avoiding the reality of our racist past makes it easier to compartmentalize racism as being something that other people do.  Bad people. Evil. People whose minds cannot ever be understood because they are fundamentally different than us. Certainly not people who could be otherwise worthy of admiration.  Racism has become our original sin and we don’t want to wrestle with the notion that we are all guilty. Refusing to even consider the stories of those who came before us simply means that we are that much less likely to recognize similar tendencies within ourselves.  If we judge racists as demons – even racists that lived decades or centuries ago and were products of a vastly different environment – we immediately find ourselves innocent because we are not demons. But prejudice is a human quality whether we want to admit that or not.  When the rubber hits the road and the — hits the fan, we WILL put ourselves and our own above everyone else. We will slit throats and take scalps and give out smallpox-laden blankets and congratulate ourselves on doing God’s work because only demons can be evil. Reading Little House and The Egg and I can inoculate us because we have learned as children that even good people with pure hearts and noble intentions can think ugly thoughts and do bad things and feel fully justified in having done them.  They can do these things without even realizing that they were wrong.

In her essay “I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read” (do read this, it’s excellent the literary critic Francine Prose dares to criticize the sacred…and as Prose describes it, “treacly”…tome To Kill a Mockingbird on precisely these grounds – that in Mockingbird, the complicated legacy of America’s racist heritage is reduced to nothing but a good guys vs. bad guys trope.  “Students are informed that literature is principally a vehicle for soporific moral blather,” Prose explains. Certainly Atticus Finch is portrayed by the author, writing from the perspective of a 9 year old daughter, as everything a father should be.  “An exercise in wish-fulfillment and self-congratulation…the comfortable certainty that the reader would NEVER harbor the racist attitudes espoused by the lowlifes in the novel,” Prose continues. Yet Pa Ingalls is also portrayed by the author (his own daughter, who is around 9 years old during much of Little House) as everything a father should be.  He whipped his daughter with a switch and was in a minstrel show.   What does that MEAN? Surely it means something; something very important, something that deserves serious consideration.

I certainly would never want any child to read anything that makes them uncomfortable.  I don’t like it at all that our dear family friend was offended by The Egg and I.  I’m sure some are screaming at their computers your lessons shouldn’t come at the expense of the feelings of others and that all this is probably white privilege but we will never overcome our racist heritage if we don’t learn these lessons.  We’ll be doomed to live it out again and again and again in a thousand different forms until we accept the reality that prejudice is in our human nature and that we are all subject to it.  Reading fiction allows us to safely try on the lives of another person, to see things from their flawed perspective, to more fully understand their motivations, both good and bad.

This is actually one of the main purposes of literature – allowing us to deeply delve into the life and mind of another.  Prose writes: “One reason we read writers from other times and cultures is to confront alternatives – of feeling and sensibility, of history and psyche, of information and ideas.”   By reading widely, even or perhaps especially tales in which people at times did questionable, even repellent things, things that I would hope that I myself would never do, I have gained greatly in understanding, in sympathy, in compassion and tolerance.  By reading widely I have been forced to confront choices and decisions that I will hopefully never be faced with. Should we ban Sophie’s Choice because the main character chooses her son’s life over her daughter’s?  Should we ban 1984 because Winston betrays Julia?  Should we ban Crime and Punishment because Raskolnikov commits murder?   Romeo and Juliet because Juliet was too young to be married?  Or The Joy Luck Club because a character abandons her twin daughters alongside a road in wartime?

Literature should be complicated.  It should present flawed, realistic characters who are products of their time and place and force us to seriously consider their point of view.  In the years since Francine Prose wrote I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read, the first draft of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird was found and published under the name Go Set a Watchman.  In this version of the story, Atticus is a more complicated, flawed character; a man more representative of the time and place in which he lived.  Of Go Set a Watchman, the writer Ursula K. LeGuin wrote, “Harper Lee was a good writer.  She wrote a lovable, greatly beloved book. But this earlier one, for all its faults, asks some of the hard questions To Kill a Mockingbird evades.”  Hard questions are good.  Children – indeed, all of us – should be exposed to hard questions that lack easy answers.  But fans of Mockingbird were outraged by the morally complex version of Atticus – Atticus could NOT have flaws, he was ATTICUS.  They couldn’t accept that he might have been a flawed man. One family, in an act of self-indulgence I consider borderline child abuse, even changed their toddler son’s name because of it.

Reading things like this, I think we NEED Little House now more than ever.  I feel like our society is plagued with moral absolutism that is manifesting itself as a nasty Puritanical streak.  We have removed our consciences and replaced them with groupthink just like poor little Atticus’ parents took his name away from him and changed it to Luke.  As Prose described the state of children’s literature over a decade ago, “…the gross oversimplification…values imagination and empathy less than the ability to make quick and irreversible judgements, to entertain and maintain simplistic immovable opinions about guilt and innocence, about the possibilities of human nature.  Less comfortable with the gray areas than with sharply delineated black and white, he or she can work in groups and operate under consensus and has a resultant, residual distrust for the eccentric, the idiosyncratic, the annoyingly…individual.”

It sounds as if she’s describing America 2018.  

We NEED children to be exposed to ideas that make us adults uncomfortable, that appear to raise issues we’d rather not discuss, that reveal that humanity has endured through many different systems of ethics and values and that at every point in time, what “everyone” thought seemed self-evident, correct, and proper to them at the time.  

And we need it very soon.  If you haven’t read your children the Little House books or haven’t read them yourself, try them.  There are a lot of wonderful things contained in their pages.  Even in the less wonderful things, you may find value.

Happy Thanksgiving.



8 thoughts on “little lessons on the prairie

  1. Racism is absolutely a calculated tactic when used by the military to dehumanize the other side. Murder is hard for most people to do, but if you make the other side less than human, well, it’s survivable, for a while. Gives you the needed bit of distance.


  2. I found this post really, really thoughtful (as usual).*

    I think I see one of your claims in this post–about people not consciously choosing racism in the way that moralizing antiracists today seem to imply–a little bit differently from how you do. I do think racism is often a conscious choice, or is on some level a conscious choice, even though it often isn’t a conscious choice, too. (It doesn’t have to be a “racism” thing….it can be about anything.) It’s usually possible to choose differently. It’s almost always difficult and very, very often dangerous, but it’s at least possible.

    The tendency to want to choose racism, or to choose it without fully consciously choosing it, is part of what I was trying to get at in my post about the Van Dyke trial at OT:

    All that said, I substantially agree with what you say here, both about the Little House books and about literature and fiction in general.

    For what it’s worth: I have some relatives who are librarians and would probably disagree with much of what you say here, both about the Little House books specifically and about how and when and how often writers should be criticized for their choices to represent racism. Sometimes (actually, more than sometimes), I find their style of critique to be reductionist, to the point that it’s one of those things I try not to talk about when we get together. However, I do agree with them (as you seem to, too, judging from this post and other posts you’ve written) that we should “interrogate” (to use a “problematic” term) racism in other works. I also agree with them on a related note that more perspectives from persons of color (and other marginalized persons) need to be made available to children and young adult readers. (Even so, their reductionism (as I see it) often and even usually interferes, because no one person can represent all perspectives and any one perspective marginalizes some other perspectives…..a point that I think is important but difficult to bring up at holiday dinners.)

    Thanks for hearing me out. And good writing!

    *Somehow I missed it when you first wrote it, but I found it because you linked to it from your “Glorious Bastards” post.


  3. Sad to see someone who writes this well mocking Jojo Rabbit with such blaise and contemptible lack of insight.
    There is, perhaps, plenty to mock about JoJo Rabbit (“tonal whiplash” would be one thing I might charily point out).

    However, when Taika Waititi can’t even find one person willing to play Adolph Hitler for fear of damaging their careers…
    JoJo doesn’t tell you what to think — it’s deep parody.
    I can list off ten dreck movies about WWII.
    Ten more that are honestly good.
    JoJo Rabbit is a different take, and stands above them all — Schindler’s List is a movie that people SAY is good. JoJo is -actually- good.

    Unfortunately, your criticism of it comes across as “WAAAA! MORE GIRLS!”
    Despite the (deserved) Oscar Nomination for Best Supporting Actress…???
    [Casting deserves an Oscar, itself, for getting realistic preteens.]


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