Politically correct radicals are now beating up on Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author of the beloved “Little House on the Prairie” children’s books, which inspired a long-running TV series starring Michael Landon that ran from 1974 to 1983.
The Association of Library Services for Children, a part of the larger American Library Association, has unanimously voted to strip Wilder’s name from a prestigious book award it has given since 1954. The reason? “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.”
To its horror the group notes that Wilder’s novels include “statements by white characters portraying Native Americans as dirty, lazy, and dangerous.”
The example that almost every Wilder critic cites is this passage in book she wrote in 1935:
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 people. Only Indians lived there.
Every other example simply reports on the attitudes of one character or another on Native Americans.
What the critics often don’t note is that Wilder was mortified when, before her death in 1957, a reader pointed out the passage to her. Wilder promptly wrote her publisher:
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.
The word “people,” was replaced with the word “settler.”
Indeed, Wilder’s books were highly nuanced, and one can read them as part of the ongoing debate over government policy toward Native Americans in the 19th century. The character Mrs. Scott clearly doesn’t like Indians and blames them for the infamous “Minnesota Massacre” of 1862 in which dozens of settlers were killed by members of the Dakota tribe. After President Abraham Lincoln sent in troops, 307 captured tribal members were sentenced to death. Lincoln later commuted the sentences of all but 38. Nonetheless, theirs was the largest one-day execution in American history.
What the librarians who want to whitewash Wilder from their literary award are basically saying is that children’s books have to avoid conflict.
But despite the memories of Mrs. Scott and the hostility of the character Ma in the books, there are other voices taking the other side. Pa, for instance, is sympathetic to the Indians. They “would be as peaceable as anybody else if they were let alone.” Pa says. “On the other hand, they had been moved west so many times that naturally they hated white folks.”
Wilder’s characters frequently debate what stance the settlers should take toward the tribes, and they often provide valuable context that puts the discrimination shown against Native Americans into perspective.
In fiction, no compelling story occurs without conflict, and there is a protagonist and an antagonist. Both tell their story. What the librarians who want to whitewash Wilder from their literary award are basically saying is that children’s books have to avoid conflict and can’t contain any “trigger” words that would be “painful” to any children.
To be consistent, Mark Twain’s name should be expunged from the comedy prize that bears his name. After all, his seminal work, Huckleberry Finn, includes the “N-word” 219 times. Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice contains anti-Semitic stereotypes: Is he now beyond the pale? Ernest Hemingway was guilty — both in print and in his public life — of many examples of misogyny and homophobia. So should the sun set on his name, too?
What all of these authors have in common is that their characters spoke and behaved as people really did during their time. Their books are witnesses to our history, which does indeed include examples of racist and bigoted stereotypes. But isn’t it better to have children confront such issues rather than treat them like snowflakes? At its best, literature forces us to wrestle with issues, even when they are not pretty.
As writer Karol Markowicz wrote at Fox News:
If we continue to impose our modern-day sensibilities on historical figures, we’ll eventually fail to celebrate any of them. No one will be woke enough; everyone will need to be erased.
I have always had a soft spot for librarians, people charged with introducing children to great literature and great ideas. I worked my way through college for two summers as a librarian. The people with whom I worked loved sharing books with children. They didn’t view their role as that of a censor or scold. Ironically, by unfairly slashing away at the reputation of Laura Ingalls Wilder they are resurrecting an old, discarded stereotype of librarians as prissy and pedantic. How ironic it would be if librarians — who should want children to be open and curious — once again develop a reputation of being close-minded.