I have a stack of books sitting on my desk.
Okay, who am I kidding pretty much everywhere I go I have a stack of books within arm’s reach—even in the kitchen (of course the kitchen’s book stack is cookbooks). But the stack of books sitting on my desk right now is a little more important to me than the other stacks of books in my house. These books, with the exception of Prairie Fires and The Great Halifax Explosion are all books I’ve read before—most numerous times—and were formative in some way. The top two books are lovely leather bound Word Cloud editions of Anna Karenina and The Wizard of Oz (full disclosure, I have only read Anna Karenina one time, but it really sealed my love of Tolstoy’s writing). The next two books are anniversary editions: Little House on the Prairie (75th Anniversary Edition) and Harriet the Spy (50th Anniversary Edition).
Both Laura and Harriet (and one can add Anne Shirley to that list, but I’ll be devoting a lot of blog space to Anne in upcoming weeks) were two of the most important characters in my young literary life. It had nothing to do with Laura being representative of my right to read, but instead Laura and Harriet were strong, brave, and smart girls. In a word: they had agency.
I reread these books numerous times simply because I saw something in these girls I didn’t always see in the world around me. Despite what Marlo Thomas (1974) said in her foreword of Free To Be You and Me: “I started to look through stores and found shelf after shelf of books that told boys and girls who they should be, who they ought to be, but seldom who they could be. I wanted a book for Dionne, a special book, a party of a book, to celebrate who she was and who she could be, all the possibilities and all the possible Dionnes. I’ve always believed that anybody could be anything, especially me” (p. 7). So despite devouring both my book and record of Free To Be You and Me, the world around me look surprisingly not like what the world of Free To Be You and Me looked like. My world was pretty “traditional.” Moms were home. Dads worked. If moms worked, it was usually something part time and not considered a career. One of my good friend’s mom was a reference librarian at our local library and despite seeing her often at the library, it wasn’t until her death that I learned she had received her MLS from Columbia University. It never occurred to me that moms went to college (or graduate school). The working women around me were teachers (or nurses), and that made sense because in the early 1970s most of the women who worked and moved in and out of my sphere only had those career paths open to them. So while it did matter what Marlo Thomas was preaching, I didn’t see her world.
And then I started reading.
Admittedly, Laura Ingalls Wilder grew up in a very traditional home: Ma, Pa, Mary, Carrie, and later Grace. However, pioneer women had to pull their weight or the family wouldn’t make it. They were strong, capable, and many times forced to be independent. It was Pa AND Ma who built the walls for the cabin. She was expected to help because there was no one else. So despite not always seeing it in my day to day life, I did see evidence of women doing everything men could do in the pages of Little House.
Laura was spirited and didn’t fit the mold of the “good girl” found in a lot of children’s literature that was available to me. And there were a lot of times in my young life I didn’t fit that mold either. After going to a place where the Osage had camped and collecting beads, Laura and Mary returned home to show Ma.
Laura stirred her beads with her finger and watched them sparkle and shine. “These are mine,” she said.
Then Mary said, “Carrie can have mine.”
Ma waited to hear what Laura would say. Laura didn’t want to say anything. She wanted to keep those pretty beads. Her chest felt all hot inside, and she wished with all her might that Mary wouldn’t always be such a good little girl. But she couldn’t let Mary be better than she was.
So she said, slowly, “Carrie can have mine, too…”
They didn’t say anything. Perhaps Mary felt sweet and good inside, but Laura didn’t. When she looked at Mary she wanted to slap her. So she dared not look at Mary again (Wilder, 1935, p. 179, 181).
As a seven year old with an older brother, I could simply and in no uncertain terms feel what Laura felt because I felt those things before too. And despite getting in trouble because of scuffles that happen between siblings when those feelings arise, Laura validated my feelings. While it was important to learn not to act on every feeling I had, I also learned it was okay to feel that way.
And there were other times when Laura was incredibly brave. When the chimney caught fire and Mary was too scared to move, Laura pulled the chair Mary and Carrie occupied out of the way of the fire, grabbed a burning stick that fell and nearly caught Mary on fire, and threw it back into the fireplace, despite being terrified herself (Wilder, 1935, p. 202-203). Her actions showed me that being scared was okay, but we shouldn’t let our fear stop us from doing anything.
Reading this book as an adult helped me to see all the things Laura Ingalls Wilder showed me about being girl: we weren’t less than. We were the same as.
However, reading this book as an adult also shocked me. A lot. While there’s so much good there’s also a lot that is troubling. Primarily, the way Native Americans are portrayed in the book. At one point in the book, Wilder states “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” While this comment is made in reference to a massacre that happened many years before back in the Big Woods so the reader might understand the sentiment, it is there for our young readers to see. Another point in the book the Osage are arguing amongst themselves, and the Ingalls family is terrified. Pa says, “Maybe they will fight each other.” And Ma replies, “Oh, Charles, if they only will” (Wilder, 1935, p. 298). Looking at this through adult eyes, one can infer that Ma hopes they’ll fight and kill each other. I’m not sure if I even picked up on this exchange as a child. In many other places the Osage are referred to as savages.
Interestingly, I don’t recall any of the racism that is written into the pages of the book. Sure, I remember Laura’s desire to see the Osage and especially see a papoose, but the commentary about the Osage escapes me. Perhaps it was my age or perhaps I was more focused on Laura’s relationship with Mary (and each reread the focus of their relationship narrowed a little more). Perhaps it was that I read this in the 1970s. I don’t really know. I can’t go back and ask my seven-year-old self what I was thinking about. I do know that Rosenblatt’s reader response theory is alive and well in my young understanding of the text. I took my known knowledge and connected it to the text “to evoke the poem.”
So what’s a reader to do? First, I don’t propose banning Little House. I also don’t propose white washing Little House. That does little to help us understand where we’ve been, and we can’t move forward if we don’t know where we’ve come from. These were the very real sentiments of the Ingalls family, and many others at the time. From 1862 (at the end of the Dakota War) to 1868 Governor Ramsey of Minnesota “declared a bounty on male Dakota scalps, twenty-five dollars a head” (Fraser, 2017, p.24). Laura Ingalls was born in Minnesota in 1867. She grew up in the shadow of the Dakota War and writes about it as if she lived through it, despite being born five years later. Charles Ingalls built his little house on the prairie on land belonging to the Osage. So when the Osage returned to the area to find a family homesteading there, it might have had some repercussions. To simplify the situation: imagine returning home from vacation or a business trip to find your neighbors living in your house. We would be angry. And of course, I have the luxury of viewing Westward Expansion through at 2018 lens. I’m able to look at civilization that existed in our country, look at the laws enacted in Washington, DC, and look at the effects of these laws through a very different lens than the one used in the 19th Century (and earlier).
I believe there is merit to Little House on the Prairie, but I also believe this isn’t a book I would just hand a young child and have them read. This is a book that warrants a lot of discussion. A lot of rich discussion. It would be interesting to pair this book with a text that explores Osage life. It’s a book that can help readers ask tough questions—questions that don’t have answers. It’s also a book that can bring about discussions that help children build empathy.
And after the reread of Little House and the renaming of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award by the ALA, I pulled Prairie Fires: The American Dream of Laura Ingalls Wilder out of a stack of books to be read. I’m finding the juxtaposition between the Ingalls family of fiction and the Ingalls family of fact to be incredibly interesting. And I think that is where the trouble with the Wilder Prize is found. I will be musing more about this in my next post.
Until next time…See YA.