Books

Librarians without Chests: A Response to the ALSC’s Denigration of Laura Ingalls Wilder

Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder (Lorie Shaull)
In favor of safe spaces and trigger-free zones, a network of professional librarians seeks to destroy a beloved literary heroine and malign her creator.

The Association for Library Services to Children (ALSC) decided on June 23 to strip Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name from an award established in 1954 to honor “the lasting contribution which [her] books have made to literature for children.” The telegram Wilder received on her 87th birthday informing her of the award continued, “In future years the award will be made in your name and be called the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award.” Overturning 65 years of honoring the most significant legacies in children’s literature with an award named for Wilder, the current ALSC noted “anti-Native and anti-Black sentiments in her work” when it called for a review of the award in February 2018. The decision this week followed that review process. “This decision was made in consideration of the fact that Wilder’s legacy, as represented by her body of work, includes expressions of stereotypical attitudes inconsistent with ALSC’s core values of inclusiveness, integrity and respect, and responsiveness,” according to the statement on the organization’s website.

The ALSC’s renaming of the Wilder medal to the Children’s Literature Legacy Award erases the fundamental role Wilder played in creating the genre of juvenile fiction. Wilder’s work and its lasting impact on every generation of children since the publication of Little House in the Big Woods (1932) served as the impetus for the establishment of the award. It would be more honest for the ALSC to just scrap the award altogether and start afresh. The stated “core values” are vague enough to allow the group to take this award in any direction the wind happens to be blowing. What is “responsiveness” in children’s literature, anyway? Responsiveness to what? And just who is included when “inclusivity” is touted as a core value? Whatever happened to children’s literature that told good stories that sparked children’s curiosity about history? Wilder’s books have certainly done this and more, inspiring a multitude of related works, both fiction and non-fiction.

Ursula Nordstrom, Wilder’s editor at Harper & Row, the publisher of the Little House books, enthusiastically wrote at the time the award was established: “I’m so happy about the recognition for her wonderful books. And it is wonderful that such an award will bear her sacred name.” Wilder rather nonchalantly included a copy of the telegram from the American Library Association in a February 10, 1954, letter to her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, prefacing it with a terse, “Here is the copy of the wire from California.” Wilder added a query: Should she send the telegram to their joint literary agent, George Bye? The next sentence announced that Wilder planned to give herself a manicure and then a rest. A week later, she sent the telegram to Bye and thanked him for his note of congratulations. Nordstrom hoped to get Wilder to Minneapolis to receive the award in person, but the elderly author feared that her health was not up to such a trip. “I have to avoid excitement and receiving the Laura Ingalls Wilder award in person would be exciting to say the least, so I must stay quietly at home. I am rather overwhelmed by it all and greatly pleased,” she wrote. Wilder went on to explain that her exhaustion was partly due to the volume of mail she received and answered on her own — some 600 to 700 fan letters, many from children, awaited her. If this is what the ALSC’s core value of “responsiveness” means, there are few authors who could match Wilder. Several decades’ worth of correspondence between readers and the author have survived in the Wilder papers. Each brims with integrity and respect, two additional ALSC core values.

Most news stories covering the travesty of renaming the Wilder medal have cited the earliest known objection to Wilder’s representation of the Kansas landscape in Little House on the Prairie (1935) as empty of people. “There the wild animals wandered and fed as though they were in a pasture that stretched much farther than a man could see, and there were no settlers. Only Indians lived there.” Until 1953, the text read, “there were no people. Only Indians lived there.” A reader complained in 1952 to Nordstrom. Her response to the reader clearly reflected her horrified shock at the realization of how the passage read. “I must admit to you that no one here realized that these words read as they did. Reading them now it seems unbelievable to me that you are the only person who has picked them up and written us about them in the twenty years since the book was published.” The letter emphasized the response of everyone at Harpers & Row: “We were disturbed by your letter. We knew that Mrs. Wilder had not meant to imply that Indians were not people.” Indeed, Wilder responded just as Nordstrom predicted. “Your letter came this morning,” Wilder wrote on October 4, 1952. “You are perfectly right about the fault in Little House on the Prairie and have my permission to make the correction as you suggest. It was a stupid blunder of mine. Of course Indians are people and I did not intend to imply they were not.”

Despite the ALSC’s contention that Wilder’s work is anti-Native and anti-black, Little House on the Prairie is far more nuanced than such dismissals indicate. The novel offers a continuum of settler responses to the Osage, on whose lands they have squatted. On one end of the spectrum are the Scotts, recent arrivals from Minnesota. They had witnessed the extremely violent U.S.–Dakota War of 1862, which gave rise to the saying repeated by Mr. and Mrs. Scott in the novel, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Wilder biographer Caroline Fraser, in her Pulitzer Prize–winning Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder (2017), notes that by 1867 (the year Wilder was born), only 50 Dakota remained in Minnesota. Contrasted with the Scotts’ view is that of Pa, who respects the Osage and laments the miscommunication that guided him to settle his family on their land. The Ingalls arrive in “Indian Country,” southeastern Kansas, when the Osage are on an extended buffalo hunt, and do not realize that they have built their new cabin on a major trail to the Osage village site. Through the character of Laura, Wilder asks fundamental questions about the Ingalls’ arrival in Kansas and shows the absurdity of Ma’s reactions to Indians.

“Why don’t you like Indians, Ma?” Laura asked, and she caught a drip of molasses with her tongue. “I just don’t like them; and don’t lick your fingers, Laura,” said Ma. “This is Indian country, isn’t it?” Laura said. “What did we come to their country for, if you don’t like them.” Ma said she didn’t know whether this was Indian country or not. She didn’t know where the Kansas line was. But whether or no, the Indians would not be here long. Pa had word from a man in Washington that the Indian Territory would be open to settlement soon. It might already be open to settlement. They could not know, because Washington was so far away.

Several visits by Osage to the Ingalls home when Pa was away elicited fear. The Indians’ demands for food and tobacco seemed to constitute a sort of tax. Though she disliked the encounters, Ma treated the visitors with respect and even cooked for them. Out of fear, Laura and her older sister Mary contemplated disobeying Pa’s orders to keep the family bulldog, Jack, tied up. Had they untied him, he almost certainly would have attacked the Osage, which was the last thing Pa would have wanted. The novel makes clear the homesteading conundrum that the U.S. government created: The Ingalls have arrived early so that they might have first choice of homesteads, but the Osage still own the land. The Ingalls are squatters, and the Osage must decide what to do. Night after night, the Osage meet in council, war drums reflecting the intensity of their discussions. Talking with neighbors about the Osage war council, Pa declares

Indians would be as peaceable as anybody else if they were let alone. On the other hand, they had been moved west so many times that naturally they hated white folks. But an Indian ought to have sense enough to know when he was licked. With soldiers at Fort Gibson and Fort Dodge, Pa didn’t believe these Indians would make any trouble.

Ironically, the soldiers set their attentions on the squatters rather than on the Osage. Rumors that soldiers would throw squatters off the land sent the Ingalls packing soon after the Osage had left the area.

Wilder depicts the Osage departure with sadness and dignity:

Then the very last pony went by. But Pa and Ma and Laura and Mary still stayed in the doorway, looking, till that long line of Indians slowly pulled itself over the western edge of the world. And nothing was left but silence and emptiness. All the world seemed very quiet and lonely.

Rather than being simply anti-Native, Wilder depicts a variety of attitudes held by Euroamerican settlers regarding Indians. She gives layers of context to homesteading, which meant the dispossession of the permanent reservation promised to many of the Eastern tribes.

Rather than being anti-Native and anti-black, Wilder’s works lead readers of all ages to ponder important truths about American history.

In the 1930s, juvenile literature was in its infancy. Wilder’s work not only opened the field, it set the model for children’s literature to delve into substantive issues of great national importance, such as these questions of broken reservation treaties. This is why the Wilder Medal was established in the first place.

While few black Americans enter the pages of Wilder’s Little House series, in Little House on the Prairie Wilder credits a black doctor with saving the Ingalls’ lives when they are struck with malaria. Dr. George Tan, a Civil War veteran who had settled in Kansas in 1869 and practiced “eclectic medicine,” administers quinine to the ailing Ingalls family. In her delirious state, Laura observes a black hand helping her to swallow bitter medicine and water. When the medicine begins to work and the doctor comes to check on the family, Laura realizes that he is the black man she had seen — it had not been the illness playing tricks on her. Wilder’s description of the scene tries to capture it from the point of view of a little girl of the time.

Laura had never seen a black man before and she could not take her eyes off Dr. Tan. He was so very black. She would have been afraid of him if she had not liked him so much. He smiled at her with all his white teeth. He talked with Pa and Ma, and laughed a rolling jolly laugh. They all wanted him to stay longer, but he had to hurry away.

Neighbors throughout the area had contracted malaria as well, and Dr. Tan was one of the few healthy people available to take care of the sick, and the only one with a supply of quinine. His presence underscores the diverse population on the Great Plains in the 1870s.

Another problematic scene mentioned by the ALSC is the minstrel show put on by the men of DeSmet in Little Town on the Prairie. Minstrel shows were standard fare across America in the last half of the 19th century, but descriptions of them certainly make for uncomfortable reading today. The DeSmet minstrel show was the culmination of a season of Friday night entertainments planned and executed by the townsmen. These “literaries” began with a spelling bee, but became increasingly silly as the winter progressed. Each week, townsmen sought to best the entertainment offered the week before. In Wilder’s telling in Little Town on the Prairie, “The famous minstrel shows in New York surely could not be better than that minstrel show had been.” The squirm-worthy descriptions of DeSmet’s minstrel show depict an unfortunate turn in entertainment, but one that should be part of our historical memory, never to be repeated.

Rather than being anti-Native and anti-Black, Wilder’s works lead readers of all ages to ponder important truths about American history. The award created in her honor encourages endeavors in children’s literature equally devoted to depicting essential aspects of American life. Stripping Wilder’s name from this award removes all meaningful context from the medal. Moreover, it sullies Wilder’s literary reputation and creates a slippery slope for excising all literature that doesn’t adhere to a strict definition of “inclusivity,” whether or not that inclusivity accurately reflects American history. As Caroline Fraser writes about Wilder’s Little House series, “The truth about settlement, about homesteading, about farming is in there, if we look for it — embedded in the novels’ conflicted, nostalgic portrayal of transient joys and satisfactions, their astonishing feats of survival and jarring acts of dispossession, their deep yearning for security. Anyone who would ask where we came from, and why, must reckon with them.”

This brave new world of erasure threatens to wipe out such questions, favoring instead a history of “inclusivity” that respects nothing of the past, denies the integrity of beloved authors, and responds only to that which is most trendy and politically correct. Through her stories of the little houses Pa and Ma built across the West, Laura Ingalls Wilder constructed the parameters of children’s literature. Naming the Wilder Medal in her honor reflected her immense contribution to the genre. Renaming the medal with the generic title, Children’s Literature Legacy Award, uncovers the motives of the ALSC: removal, if not complete destruction, of a beloved coming-of-age story set in the complicated context of westward expansion, depicting one of American children’s literatures greatest heroines, Laura Ingalls.

The rejection of the author and the rejection of her semi-autobiographical novels produce the same result: In favor of safe spaces and trigger-free zones, this country’s professional librarians seek to destroy the literary heroine that millions of American girls (and boys) identified with and aspired to emulate. In doing so, they seek to destroy us all and re-make us in their own image, based on their core values of inclusivity and responsiveness, rounded out by respect (properly placed, of course) and their version of integrity. Join me in being naughty on the inside (one of my favorite aspects of young Laura’s character) by refusing to accept the Association of Library Services to Children’s version of Laura Ingalls Wilder. We know better.

Dedra McDonald Birzer — Dedra McDonald Birzer is a lecturer in history at Hillsdale College. She is the author of a forthcoming book on Rose Wilder Lane and her public intellectual community.

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