The Laura Ingalls Wilder debate


Earlier this week, the American Association for Library Services to Children announced that its prestigious Laura Ingalls Wilder Award was to be renamed as the Children’s Literature Legacy Award.  “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” – referring to the depiction of Native American and black people in her books, notably in Little House on the Prairie.

My copy of Little House on the Prairie is falling to pieces, because it’s been read so often.  The publishing information page informs me that the book was first published in the US in 1935, was first published in the UK in 1937, and was first published by Puffin in 1964 – and that it had been reprinted pretty much every year since 1964, sometimes as much as four times in a year.  That says a lot about how popular it was.  The last re-publication date given is 1981, so my copy must have been bought in either late 1981 or early 1982.  So I’d have first read it when I was either six or just turned seven.  At that age, you probably don’t really question the rights and wrongs of what you’re reading: you just accept it.  That does create particular problems over what it is and isn’t OK for children’s books to say.

Prejudice as written about in children’s books can be a useful tool for explanation and understanding.  One of our set books in the second year of secondary school was Through The Barricades, Joan Lingard’s book about a romance between a Protestant girl and a Catholic boy in 1970s Belfast.  Several characters in that book make very disparaging comments about the other community.  But, when you’re reading a book at school (although I’d read it myself, years before), you’re doing so with an eye to discussion.  That’s not necessarily the case when a child is reading a book on his or her own.  And, by the age of twelve or thirteen, people are better able to judge and question what they read in books than at the age of six or seven.

It does need to be noted that all they’ve done is rename an award.  The books are not being banned.  It’s highly unlikely that they’ll go out of print – if anything, the publicity from all this might get more people buying them.  However, this decision is part of a wider cultural debate, in the United States, here in the United Kingdom, and elsewhere, about the issue of views which were considered acceptable in the cultures of those holding them at the time at which they lived and worked, but aren’t now, and that’s partly why it’s attracting so much attention.

It does seem to be getting out of hand.  What next?  Rename Washington DC because George Washington owned slaves?  Remove the name of Shakespeare from any public building or organization because Othello and Shylock are offensive stereotypes?  Pulling down the statue of Lord Nelson in Trafalgar Square’s been suggested already!   So has renaming the various schools, streets and buildings in Bristol named after Edward Colston, a philanthropist but also a slave trader.  Confederate monuments in various southern states have been removed, because many people insist that the Confederacy was all about slavery and won’t take into account, or don’t consider important, the fact that it was also about states’ rights.  There’ve even been objections to screenings of Gone With The Wind, the greatest film ever made (from the greatest book ever written), because its views on race are those of wealthy Southerners in the 1860s and 1870s, when it’s set, not of people in the 2010s. And pretty much every single person who lived in Europe in the Middle Ages is, by these standards, to be condemned for lack of religious tolerance.  And, if we’re talking about tolerance, don’t even go there when talking about the Bible.

On the other hand … I found it rather strange seeing the huge statue of Bohdan Khmelnystky, who’s regarded as a hero in Ukraine but whom I think of as being responsible for mass murder, in the middle of St Sophia’s Square in Kyiv.  And I can’t remember reading any articles in the Western press criticising people in the former Soviet Union for pulling down statues of Stalin.  Imagine how it’d feel to see a statue of Hitler, and, if you objected, be told that he was the democratically elected Chancellor of Germany, that Austria voted overwhelmingly in favour of the Anschluss, and that removing it would be an Orwellian rewriting of history.  This whole issue is a very difficult one: there are no easy answers.

Most people, hopefully, would not dream of arguing that racism or other forms of prejudice are acceptable.  The issue is the one of the Orwellian rewriting of history.  It would be ridiculous to have Scarlett O’Hara, Melanie Hamilton and co speaking out about the need for racial equality, or Jane Eyre telling St John Rivers that she had no intention of becoming a missionary in India because Islam and Hinduism were just as valid as Christianity, the various snooty kids in Enid Blyton books accepting working-class children into their gangs, or indeed Antonio and Portia accepting Jewish merchants of Venice as being equal to Catholic ones.   In fact, pretending that these views never existed in the past would be a downright insult to all the people over the years who’ve battled against them, and continue to do so.  It wouldn’t be possible to do that even if people wanted to.  How can you tell American history without talking about white settlers driving out Native Americans?  Not only would it be impossible, it would be very, very wrong.

So what’s the answer?  If you’re telling the story in the form of a novel, you’re going to have at least some of your characters expressing the views that were commonly held at that time and in that place.  That’s what happens in Little House on the Prairie.  So what is actually said that’s caused offence?

The main issues involve Native Americans, although concerns have also been raised about attitudes in the books towards African-American people.  The only black character in Little House on the Prairie is Dr Tan, who treats the Ingalls family when they’re suffering from malaria.  Laura says that she’d never seen a black person before, and would have been scared of him had she not liked him so much.  I can’t see that there’s anything objectionable about that: young children can be scared of any sort of difference, and it’s made clear that he’s a good person and a good doctor.  And a doctor is hardly a negative stereotype.

 However, there’s the issue of the black and white minstrel show in Little Town on the Prairie, which involves Pa Ingalls and a number of other white men “blacking up”, i.e. using “blackface” make-up.  One of my great-great-great uncles was a Victorian music hall ventriloquist.  This amuses me greatly: most of my relations are listed on the census reports as working in factories or shops.  He was famous, in music hall circles, for presenting a ventriloquism show involving eight dummies done up as black and white minstrels.  OK, that’s not quite the same thing, because using a black dummy isn’t the same as a white person “blacking up” with make-up, but the point is that black and white minstrel shows were a common form of entertainment in Victorian times.  Never mind Victorian times – the BBC was still showing a weekly black and white minstrel show in the 1970s.  It wasn’t axed until 1978.  1978!  It’s hard to believe that, but it’s true.  And, at the time of Laura’s childhood, even black performers would sometimes wear blackface make-up.

But shows of that sort are now considered highly offensive.  Many of them showed black characters as being unintelligent and figures of fun.  There was some criticism of them even in Victorian times.  I don’t think that actually comes across much in Laura’s book, because the focus is on music and dancing, but it’s a question of that whole genre of “entertainment”.  And there’s also the question of the use of the word “darky”, now considered extremely offensive (in English, not necessarily in South American Spanish, but that’s another story).  Language changes, and the word would have been in common use in the 1870s, although maybe less so by the 1930s, but the word certainly isn’t acceptable now.  What if a young child were to read that word and repeat it in public?  As a kid, you’re not to know that a word in a book isn’t to be used.  But is changing the language in a book rewriting history and culture?  There are just no easy answers here.

Whilst black people feature very little in the books, Osage Native Americans and the attitude of white people towards them feature prominently in Little House on the Prairie (it is mainly just that one book in the series), during which the Ingalls family illegally build a house in a part of Kansas which is under Osage ownership but which they believe will soon be opened up to homesteaders.

And, as I said, I first read Little House on the Prairie when I was six or seven.  Fast forward to December 1986, by which time I was eleven, had read all the “Little House” books a million times (although, strangely, I never watched the TV series), and thought I was very grown up because I’d started reading “grown up” books.  The first one I read was A Woman of Substance by Barbara Taylor Bradford – how 1980s blockbuster-ish is that?!  Another early one was North and South by John Jakes, after watching the superb TV series starring the late, great Patrick Swayze.  After that, I started reading up on the American Civil War, the events leading up to it, and Reconstruction, big style, and I’ve never stopped.  So, if you ask me about the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, I will launch into a very long spiel about popular sovereignty, free soil, border ruffians, the expansion of slavery, the Lecompton Constitution, Bleeding Kansas, Preston Brook hitting Charles Sumner with his cane and all the rest of it.  So, I suspect, would most people.  It is generally seen as a step along the road to the war.  However, it also led to large numbers of would-be settlers flooding into Kansas.

The Osage Nation had already been pushed out of many of their ancestral lands, into south eastern Kansas.  Now that area too saw an influx of white settlers and, during the war, both sides seemed to think that it was perfectly OK to steal horses and supplies from the Osage.  To try to get the Confederates to leave them alone, they made a treaty with them.  After the war, this was used as an excuse to force them to cede even more land to the Union, and they were pushed into “Indian Territory” – roughly speaking, Oklahoma – in 1870.  The Ingalls family moved to south eastern Kansas in 1868, whilst even the United States government recognized that it was still under Osage control.

There are various theories about what entitles people to own land.  Mrs Scott, a character in the book, says that people who settle and work on land should be entitled to own it.  Apparently this theory was developed by John Locke.  The only book by John Locke that I’ve ever read was Two Treatises of Government.  That was twenty five years ago.  It was so boring that I’ve never read anything else by him, nor do I ever intend to.   Anyway, those theories are irrelevant: the land was legally recognised, by the government of the country to which the Ingalls and Scott families belonged, as being owned by the Osage.  There’s some confusion over whether or not they realised that they were just the wrong side of a dividing line, but they didn’t really care.

Manifest Destiny.  Go west, young man, go west.  The destiny, the right, of white, and preferably Protestant, Americans to settle from sea to shining sea.  All this.  I don’t mean this in any sort of anti-American way: the US is hardly the only country where attitudes like that existed.  And, alongside Manifest Destiny went the idea of “Indian removal”.  And negative ideas towards Native Americans generally.  The first editions of the book infamously stated that “there were no people there, only Indians”.  This was later changed to “there were no settlers there, only Indians”, but you get the idea.  Native Americans being seen as less than people.  There’s a bizarre scene in which young Laura sees some Native Americans riding past, including a mother with a baby, and wants Pa to go and “get” the baby for her, because she thinks the baby’s cute and wants to keep him/her.  It’s very strange.

The Osage characters get no actual voice in the books: they don’t speak English, and the Americans don’t speak Osage, so, with it being told from Laura’s viewpoint, there’s no means of her understanding them.  One of the Osage chiefs, named as Soldat du Chene and said to have prevented a massacre of settlers, speaks French, but Laura doesn’t.  So we don’t get their viewpoint at all.  On two occasions, Osage men, described as “wild”, come into the Ingalls family house whilst Pa is out and Ma is in with the three children.  They demand cornbread and, on one occasion, steal tobacco.  So the portrayal of them is certainly very negative – and that, it has to be said, probably in line with most white Americans’ views at the time.   But this was Laura’s experience, and she was writing about her experience.

We do, however, get different views expressed by different white American characters.  There isn’t really a narrative: the narrative is what Laura’s thinking.  So, I suppose, the narrative is the author’s voice, although it’s adult Laura writing about child Laura.  Or is it actually Laura at all? – it’s known that a lot of the work on the books was actually done by Laura’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane.  Oh well, that’s academic: if you’re going to look at it like that, then “Laura Ingalls Wilder” the author is a combination of Laura Ingalls Wilder herself and Rose Wilder Lane!   But the lack of a narrative other than the voice of a character means that the author’s own views don’t come across, as they do in some books.  Unless we take the thoughts of Laura the child to be those of the author.  I’m tying myself in knots here!   But, in some books, it’s clear that the author does not agree with those expressed by the characters.   Another way in which authors, especially children’s authors, do that is to have the “bad” views expressed by characters whom the reader is meant to dislike.  That doesn’t happen here either.

The books infamously use the expression “The only good Indian is a dead Indian”.  In Little House on the Prairie, it’s used by the family’s neighbours, Mr and Mrs Scott.  Mrs Scott in particular is very vehement in her dislike of Native Americans.  It’s explained that this is because her family came close to being caught up in the “Minnesota Massacres” – i.e. the Dakota War of 1862, when the Dakota (Sioux) attacked white settlers, and the United States army then took hundreds of Dakota prisoner and hanged thirty eight of them, the largest mass hanging in US history.  I’m quite sure that, as a six or seven year old, I didn’t have the remotest clue what had happened in 1862, but I suppose I’d have picked up on the fact that something bad had happened and that that had made Mrs Scott feel as she did.  Nothing excuses the prejudice expressed in the book, but it is made clear that Mrs Scott’s feelings are not just blind prejudice.

The one who does express blind prejudice is Ma Ingalls, a character whom we are usually meant to admire – and these presumably were the views of Caroline Quiner Ingalls, as expressed to Laura.  That, of course, is an additional issue: although the books aren’t an accurate reflection of what happened, the characters in them were real people, and the views are theirs, not views put into their heads and mouths by the author.  Ma says that she doesn’t “like Indians”, but doesn’t explain why: in fact, she follows it up by telling Laura off for licking molasses off her fingers, which rather makes it clear that she doesn’t think that what she’s said is a big deal.  Laura asks why Ma doesn’t like “Indians”, but doesn’t get an answer.

Pa Ingalls, on the other hand, repeatedly says, both to other family members and to their neighbours, the Scotts and Mr Edwards, that he doesn’t think badly of “Indians”.  He speaks of them quite respectfully.  That, however, doesn’t stop him from thinking that it’s OK to take their land.  He tells Laura that “Indians” go west when white settlers come, as if that’s a natural process.   Laura tries to say that this must surely make them “mad”, but she doesn’t get an answer.  But she’s asking the question, just as she wanted to know why Ma felt as she did.

It’s actually quite profound for a book aimed at such young children.  Different characters, none of whom are “baddies”, express contrasting views.  Questions are asked, but not answered.

A couple of years ago, on the lookout for free Kindle books set in South America, I made the mistake of downloading a “boys’ own” type book by R M Ballantyne, published in 1884.  Bloody hell.  It was pretty much unreadable, because of the way that the black characters were portrayed.  I feel uncomfortable just thinking about it.

Laura’s books aren’t like that.  And they tell important tales about the history of the American pioneers.

But they have characters saying that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian”.  And using words like “darky”.

So what’s the answer?  What’s the question, in fact?  Is it whether we should condemn people who lived in the past for holding views that were widespread in that time and in that place?  Is it whether, if we do, we should be erasing those people from our own world?  Is it whether Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books are offensive?  Is it whether children should be being encouraged to read them?

Well, no, it’s not very fair to condemn people who lived in a different time and place for holding views that aren’t acceptable now but were then.  And, yes, whilst the attitudes in the book aren’t as one-sided as has perhaps made out, there certainly are things in the books that are offensive – and these are books aimed at young children, who probably won’t realise that those views are offensive and unacceptable.  But we can’t have books in which characters don’t express the views of the time and place they’re in.

The best answer to any of this is probably the one that the young Laura gives us – that you shouldn’t accept other people’s views without questioning.  Then explanations can be given, at an age appropriate level, of the wrongs of the past.  But that relies on children asking.  And adults answering.

I’d be interested to see an opinion poll – in the US, I mean – on that, because I think the only answer to the question of whether or not the award should have been renamed is whether or not that’s what a majority of Americans think is right.   These are difficult questions, and more and more of them are likely to arise in the near future.

9 thoughts on “The Laura Ingalls Wilder debate

  1. Chris Deeley

    All very interesting. At the time of “Gone with the Wind” black Americans were referred to as negro or nigger. The latter term was regarded as highly offensive and the film’s producers were asked not to use it: hence the term “darkie”. It’s interesting to see how these terms evolve: negro, coloured, black, African. It would be nice if we didn’t use any race-discriminating language, but non-white people seem to engage in race discrimination as much as the rest of us. In Australia (where I reside) indigenous/non-indigenous is an ongoing and strengthening discriminator, which I would prefer not to have. I suspect that it would be unacceptable for people like me to describe ourselves as “indigenous Britons”, but here in Australia “indigenous Australians” make a big deal about their ancestry.


    • It’s an interesting debate – we’ve not heard much about it here, but I gather that it’s being discussed on American chat shows. I don’t know what the answer is – obviously you don’t want to offend anyone, but it seems very unfair to criticise people for using words that were perfectly acceptable at the time at which they were writing. And it would be silly to have characters expressing views that people from their backgrounds just would not have held at the time.


      • Chris Deeley

        After several hours discussion with my wife, we have at least worked out what the question is: “Should our history be obliterated for the sake of political correctness?” We are still working on an answer!


  2. daphne

    When the Wilder family lived in Missouri the town had a debate in which Laura was the only woman ever to have ever been nominated to partake in what was known as a man’s game. The debate was on the topic, Who was treated more unfairly, The Black man or the Indian. Laura was chosen to speak for the Indian and she did it so well the speech was reprinted in the Missouri Ruralist and it was agreed that the “poor indians had finally won a fight”…..

    Furthermore, I would like to add that she (Laura) lived in a time and place that the Indians were seen as something like a modern day bogeyman, because most whites did not understand their religious practices and their ways of living a much simpler lifestyle. The “Christian” of then saw anyone different from themselves as a threat to the church and of course, any bad situation could escalate to out of control proportions in a matter of seconds, even though most times the facts they were working with were unfounded. It is a horrible shame that the history of this country has to be rewritten by some who get butthurt over every little thing so they become drama seekers.


    • Thank you so much for reading and commenting. That’s really interesting. There are similar issues here in the UK, with historical figures – even including people like Winston Churchill – being criticised for holding views that were common at the time at which they lived.


      • Chris Deeley

        I’m currently reading Boris Johnson’s biography of Churchill (‘The Churchill Factor’), which I recommend. You are quite correct: the likes of Churchill would be an embarrassment in the world we now live in.


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