American History’s Biggest Fibs with Lucy Worsley – BBC 4

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This certainly didn’t pull any punches. It was actually quite malicious; and I’d love to know what an American audience would make of it.  Remember the days when Auntie Beeb was actually neutral?!  Anyway.  I’ve been studying American history since 1986.  It’s one of the things I go back to if I’m having a bad spell with anxiety, because it reminds that me that I’m still me.  My specialist period’s the Civil War, and I’m rather looking forward to seeing Dr Lucy debunking some of the myths about that; but I do tend to get a bit soppy and romantic over the Revolution.  I’ve got my own little model of the Liberty Bell.  And I’ve even got a copy of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution (which I last night located behind my copy of the National Trust Book of Scones, for some reason).  But I do know very well that most of it is more romance than fact, and there was nothing factual in this programme that I found surprising or that I’d even really argue with.  It was still quite “interesting” to see the BBC absolutely lay into the United States like this, though.  I don’t think they’d have shown a programme like this before The Donald (he who thinks that it was the Canadians who burnt down the White House in 1812) got himself elected president.

Is it really weird for a British historian to get soppy over the American Revolution? Or is it a Mancunian rebel thing 😉 ?  I got genuinely emotional at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, and even more so at the National Archives in Washington, seeing original copies of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.  (Maybe a bit less so at Boston Harbour, because the thought of all that tea being wasted was rather upsetting.  I’m very fond of tea.)   It’s all that “land of the free” stuff.  It really does get to you … even when you’re a Civil War specialist and can talk about the history of slavery in the US until the cows come home.

So, we started off with the basic point that the Declaration of Independence was actually made on July 2nd, 1776.  I remind people about that every Fourth of July – and probably really annoy them, sorry! Then we jumped back to 1773.  Lucy Worsley did surprisingly little dressing up in this: Michael Portillo dressed up when he covered the Boston Tea Party, but Lucy didn’t.  I did wonder if maybe she was trying to get herself taken more seriously, but there was some dressing up later on.  Incidentally, if someone is trying to get themselves taken more seriously, maybe they should avoid using the word “fibs” in the title of their programme.  It sounds like something you say to a naughty five-year-old who’s insisting that they weren’t the one who left toys out all over the floor.

It was pointed out that Washington, Franklin et al weren’t very amused by the Boston Tea Party – not so much because it was a waste of good tea as because it involved the destruction of private property. As we all know, the British and American well-to-do classes in Georgian times were obsessed with private property.  And it meant that those who’d been arguing against no taxation without representation were made to look like criminals.  Big black mark.  A bit of a dig was also made about the modern use of the name “Tea Party” by people who are … shall we say, not exactly associated with liberty and equality.  I nearly added “and fraternity” there – oops, wrong revolution.

Next up for debunking was Paul Revere’s ride. No, Paul Revere did not make a daring solo ride to warn the people of Lexington and Concord that the British were coming.  There were two other blokes involved, and Revere himself was captured at Lexington and never even got to Concord.  Paul Revere’s always annoyed me, for some reason.  I don’t know why, given that I do get soppy over the Revolution.  Lucy, quite rightly, put the blame for the Paul Revere myth on Longfellow.  That’s twice in a week that I’ve had a go at Longfellow (who also wrote Evangeline).   I much prefer Longfella.  Sorry – couldn’t resist that.

And then there was the idea of the American army as being made up of gallant farmers. Er, yep, I think we’re all a bit past that, and know very well that it was, or at least became, a professional army, but the myth persists.  I actually blame Oliver Cromwell for this.  He’s the main reason (Louis XIV is the runner-up, but a long way behind) that people in Britain got so paranoid about the idea of professional armies, and that idea crossed the Atlantic.  It took the Duke of Wellington to change people’s minds here, but he, obviously, didn’t have any influence in the US, and so the idea of the army of gallant farmers remained a romantic ideal.  It just isn’t actually true.   And, of course, the Second Amendment had to get a mention there.  Whilst I think practically everyone in the UK wishes that America would tighten up its gun controls, the BBC is supposed to be politically neutral.  Between that, the digs about immigration and the digs about fake news … well, as I said, I don’t think they’d have shown a programme like this before Mr Trump took up residence in the White House.

Ah yes, presidents. The great George Washington … slaveowner.  I’ve recently read Monticello, by Sally Cabot Gunning, and a lot of that revolves around the paradox of Thomas Jefferson owning slaves.  I didn’t get soppy at Monticello, nor at Mount Vernon.  It’s worth noting that Revolutionary France did abolish slavery (although Napoleon restored it a few years later).  As we all know, the new United States did not, and many of the Founding Fathers, including Washington and Jefferson, were slaveowners.  You can’t call that a myth, or indeed a fib, because no-one pretends otherwise, but … well, you can tie yourself in knots trying to reconcile the idea of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness with another nine decades of slavery.  Not to mention with the lack of rights for women.  The treatment of Native Americans.  Discrimination against non-Protestants. I love the United States and am not criticising her any more than I’d criticise any other country, but … it just doesn’t sit very well with the idea of the “land of the free”.

And poor old George III. Dear old Farmer George, with his fifteen kids and his health problems, cast as some sort of tyrant.  This really does annoy me.  Have a go at Parliament, by all means.  Either in the 1770s or today!   But it’s extremely unfair that the myths of the American Revolution cast George III as a tyrant.  In fact, it’s not even fair to class Parliament as tyrannical.  Look at what was going on in most Continental countries at the time!   But the specific point being made was that the colonists originally saw George III as an ally against Parliament, and that that changed – with Thomas Paine, who didn’t even move to the colonies until 1774, being the one who called for independence.  John Adams apparently said that American independence wouldn’t have happened without Paine.  In the wonderful North and South trilogy by John Jakes, Cooper Main idolises Paine … and I think that was where I first came across Paine.  But no-one talks about him very much in connection with the American Revolution, more about the Rights of Man.  And poor old George III got labelled as a tyrant.  He was nothing of the sort!

This was tied in with the myth of Who Started It. Well, you get that with all wars.  It’s always the other side’s fault.  But, with a civil war, which the American War of Independence was, there’s always a build-up beforehand.  The British blamed the colonials.  The colonials blamed the British.  And I’m not happy with the terminology there, because most of the colonials would have regarded themselves as British.  Interestingly, that was one road Lucy never went down … that of the American Tories, who remained loyal to the British Crown.  I suppose you can only fit so much into an hour, but I would have thought that that was quite a big issue.  American history tends conveniently to forget how many Americans actually fought for the British!  The role of Native Americans wasn’t really covered, either.  I suppose that doesn’t class as a “fib”, because American history doesn’t pretend that most Native Americans didn’t support the British (apologies for appalling sentence construction there!).  It just rather ignores the subject.

The Spanish got ignored, as well. It’s Aussie Open fortnight, OK: my brain’s running along rather Spanish lines ATM!  And, whilst I’m having a moan, I’d have liked a mention of the fact that the great Bostonian supporters of liberty were hitting the roof over Catholics in Quebec being allowed civil rights.  But the programme pretty much made out that the French were responsible for the Americans winning the War of Independence.  I think that’s a bit of an exaggeration.  It’s a reasonable point … but it’s an exaggeration.  But, yes, it was definitely all part of the … well, the so-called “Second Hundred Years’ War” that began with England fighting Louis XIV and ended with the United Kingdom defeating Napoleon.  It most certainly wasn’t just about the Thirteen Colonies.

They couldn’t even let the actual Declaration of Independence alone. I really do think some Americans would get very upset by this programme!   As a kid, I remember getting terribly confused by the fact that the battles of Lexington and Concord took place in 1775.  It didn’t make sense.  The whole thing didn’t kick off until 1776, so how could there have been battles in 1775? Why was the “shot that was heard around the world” fired a year before independence was declared?  Well, ahem, the fighting actually kicked off well before the Declaration of Independence – so presenting the said Declaration of Independence as something peaceful and heroic and idealistic is seriously misleading.  Well … OK, but I do wish the programme hadn’t clearly taken so much delight in knocking all those ideals.  There really was something quite nasty and vindictive about it … and, only an hour earlier, I’d been watching another BBC programme which had been pretty nasty and vindictive about the idea of grammar schools.  The BBC is supposed to try to present a balanced view of things, but it doesn’t do that with anything any more.

After that, it felt as if they were just looking for stories to tear apart. The idea of Molly Pitcher at the Battle of Monmouth is probably rubbish.  Well, like a lot of stories, it’s probably an amalgamation of various different stories about various different people.  That’s hardly uncommon, in history.  And the idea of the Liberty Bell ringing to proclaim the Declaration of Independence is untrue as well, we were told, not least because the steeple of the Pennsylvania State House was under repair at the time.  I don’t know.  OK, there wasn’t any big proclamation on the actual day of the declaration, but there are certainly accounts of bells being rung a few days later.  And no-one’s entirely sure what sort of condition the steeple was in at the time: there’s a lot of confusion about that. The Liberty Bell idea partly belongs to the 1830s, when it got tied in with the Abolitionist movement, but it was certainly a “thing” during the War of Independence, when it was hidden to prevent it from being melted down for use as munitions, and that does suggest that it was associated with July 1776.  I think Lucy was a bit too dismissive there.

After the Liberty Bell, we moved on to the Statue of Liberty. Hang on.  What’s the Statue of Liberty got to do with the American Revolution?!    It wasn’t built (do you “build” statues?) until a century later, and it wasn’t dedicated until 1886!  This was basically a dig at Donald Trump.  I’ve got a little model of the Statue of Liberty as well, incidentally, and I had as copy of part of Emma Lazarus’s poem stuck up next to it at one time!   We were told that everyone was getting rather cynical about the idea of liberty by the 1880s, and that the Emma Lazarus poem changed the meaning of the Statue of Liberty into being a symbol of the USA opening its arms to immigrants.  Oh come on, BBC!   I won’t repeat what I think of Donald Trump’s ridiculous idea about building a wall on the US-Mexican border, but what on earth has that got to do with the Revolution?  This was supposed to be a history programme!

It finished up with the Alexander Hamilton musical. That at least was relevant to the Revolution, but most of what was said seemed more of a comment on the current state of race relations in the US than on “fibs” about the Revolution.   It was all getting a bit silly by this point.

There was some interesting stuff in this, and it’s been a while since we’ve had any sort of new programme about American history, but I’m getting rather sick of the BBC shoehorning political opinions into everything. EastEnders. Holby City.  When I want to watch someone putting forward their views on the current political situation, I’ll watch a political programme.  This was supposed to be a history programme!  But, as I said, I get soppy over the Revolution.  If next week’s programme debunks the ridiculous idea that the Civil War (and it wasn’t a Civil War, but unfortunately you can’t say “War Between The States”, the more accurate term, without someone thinking you’re a racist) was about ending slavery rather than about preserving the Union, and if the following week’s episode debunks the myth that “the Russians” (why can’t people say “Soviets” instead of “Russians?!) were the big bad guys of the Cold War, then I’ll stop moaning and start praising!

 

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Great Alaskan Railroad Journeys – BBC 2

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Russian Orthodox churches, stunning scenery, and cute furry sea otters.  All in one thirty-minute episode.  Hooray!  Sadly, as Michael Portillo, resplendent in a burnt orange jacket and royal blue trousers, and his guides made clear, the history of Alaska is nothing like as beautiful as the views – an all-too-familiar story of native peoples and native wildlife populations decimated by the effects of outside involvement.  Lots of history in this first episode, along with lots of gorgeous scenery – in what is by far the biggest of the United States, seven times the size of the United Kingdom, but with a population of under 750,000.

First up, Ninilchik, with its glorious Russian Orthodox church.  I like Russian Orthodox churches 🙂 .  Founded by Russian settlers in the 1840s, it’s now an officially-designated Alaska Native village, and most of the people there, including the gentleman who showed Michael round, are of mixed Alaska Native and Russian heritage.  The man explained that many of the Russian men who came to Alaska – the first settlers arriving in the 1780s – married Alaska Native women, and a joint culture developed.

Sadly, whilst this talk of intermarriage and a mixed culture sounded all very nice, it was explained that the Russian period was actually disastrous for the indigenous population.  As happened when Spanish conquistadors and settlers arrived in Central and South America, and in so many other cases, the native peoples, with no immunity to European diseases, was devastated by disease.  They were also treated appallingly by the Russians – first forced labour, then actual enslavement, especially in the Aleutian Islands where disease, conflict and slavery killed up to 85% of the population.

From there, we got a bit of light relief, as he visited another area with Russian heritage, where there was a Russian tearoom.  There used to be a Russian tearoom in Bacup.  Then it moved to Skipton.  Then it closed down, and I was very put out.  Anyway, this one’s still going – and we got the obligatory dressing up bit which Michael seems to like to include in most episodes.  More interesting than the dressing up were the samovars.  I love samovars.  And even more interesting than the samovars was the fact that the owner of the tearoom was an Old Believer.  Sadly, the programme failed to mention, presumably largely because it would have been totally irrelevant, the fact that some Old Believers back in Russia became involved with the textile industry and therefore established links with Lancashire; but I’m mentioning it because I like telling people that.  Yes, I do know that I’m about the only person on the planet who finds that interesting, but Old Believers in general are very interesting.

Moving swiftly on, before I start going on about the Schism of 1653, the current goings-on over the new Ukrainian Orthodox Church, or anything else.  On to Seward, where, whilst sailing round Resurrection Bay amid the most spectacular views of snow-covered mountains, Michael and his guide discussed the Alaska Purchase – made by the United States from the Russian Empire for $7.2 million, in 1867.

Russian explorers first made landfall in Alaska in 1741, with the first Russian settlement there being established in 1784, and the Russian-American Company getting stuck into the incredibly lucrative fur trade.  I always think of the most valuable furs as having come from Canadian beavers, and was interested to hear that those from Alaskan sea otters were considered better.  Obviously wearing fur is not acceptable now, but it was such a huge trade at the time … but things didn’t go as well as the Russians had hoped.  Conflict with the native peoples, who bravely resisted Russian settlement, competition from British-Canadian and American companies, and, above all, the stupid, thoughtless, over-hunting of fur-bearing animals, with no thought for what was going to happen in the future.

So.  1867.  Two years after the end of the American Civil War.  Eleven years after Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War, six years after the sort-of-emancipation of the serfs, four years after the outbreak of the Polish-Lithuanian rebellion.  And a year after the attempted assassination that, along with the rebellion, probably frightened Alexander II off continuing along a liberal, reformist path – and he, the Tsar-Liberator did so much, with the military, the judiciary, and the administration.  Not to mention the fact that the Russian government was skint after the Crimean War, and needed money to pay off landowners (after emancipation) and build railways.  And in the middle of the Great Game, with Russia stressing that Britain might try to take Alaska … which I think was very unlikely to happen, because Britain was far more worried about Russia trying to barge into India, and had already made it clear that we didn’t want Alaska.  Anyway.  Russia decided to sell.

And America decided to buy.  William Seward, who negotiated the Alaska Purchase with the Russians, was an interesting character.  I think of him primarily in terms of his role in Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet, but he was involved in anti-slavery activities long before the Civil War, and, whilst some early Republicans had Know-Nothing backgrounds, he’d always spoken out in support of immigrants and backed the rights of non-Protestants.

As was pointed out, Seward said that the Alaska Purchase was his greatest achievement.  It certainly turned out to be a brilliant deal for the Americans.  Seal fisheries, to start with.  Poor seals  😦 .  And then all that gold.  Not to mention all the other minerals there.  And, of course, the oil fields.  The Russians found some gold in the 1840s, but, bizarrely, didn’t do anything about it.  Barely three years after the American takeover, gold mining began in earnest, and, come the 1890s, it all just went wild.

That was years later, though.  At the time, it seems to have been far more about the infamous concept of Manifest Destiny.  And the Americans seem to have been as concerned as the Russians about keeping the British out.  Those were the days, when Britain had a strong government and a strong opposition!  Canada – and the Alaska Purchase took place in the same year as Canadian Confederation – was already part of the British Empire, so I’m not sure why the Americans thought it would make that much difference if Britain were to take Alaska.  Well, the idea seems to have been to weaken British Columbia by sandwiching it between two parts of American territory, but I’m not sure what they thought was actually going to happen … but anyway.  Anglo-American relations were pretty bad at that time, Britain having the needle about US agents having illegally captured two Confederate diplomats from a British ship in 1861 (I remember once writing about that in my rough book whilst not paying attention during a maths lesson when I was about 15.  I was a very weird teenager!) and the US having the needle about Confederate warships having been built in Birkenhead.

The deal wasn’t entirely popular in America at the time, with some people feeling that the money would have been better spent on Reconstruction.  Having seen, on my travels through some of the southern states, how places like Natchez and Memphis have never really recovered from the Civil War, there’s certainly a very strong argument in favour of that … but, from a wider economic viewpoint, Seward made the right choice.

Well, he did from an American viewpoint.  Oh, and Michael didn’t go into nearly all this much detail, in last night’s thirty minute episode, but I’m just indulging myself because I love writing about both Imperial Russia and 1860s America 🙂 .   From a Russian viewpoint, with the benefit of hindsight, it was a pretty bad move.  As Michael remarked, imagine how different the Cold War might have been if Alaska had been part of the Soviet Union.  For that matter, imagine the effect on today’s geopolitical situation of Alaska being part of Putin’s Russian Federation rather than Trump’s United States.

All of which rather ignores the fact that the land wasn’t Russia’s to sell – and Michael, who was being shown around Seward and its environs by an Alaska Native gentleman, did make that quite clear.  There were only a few hundred Russians there at the time, and yet Russia sold, and America bought, land on which around 50,000 indigenous people were living, and neither side seems to have given two hoots about the rights or views of those indigenous people.

This was only the first episode, and I would like to think that future episodes will explain that the American treatment of the Alaska Natives was also pretty shocking.  The territory (for lack of a better expression – it wasn’t even an official “territory” until 1912, and only became a state in 1959) was initially put under military control, and, as was done elsewhere in America, attempts were made to convert the native peoples to Christianity and to Americanise their way of life, and Alaska Natives were not granted US citizenship until 1921.  I’m not having a go at either the United States or Russia, any more than at Britain or many other countries, but these issues need to be raised, and raising them in popular TV programmes is far more helpful than pulling down statues or

And the over-hunting also continued under American control.  It was also interesting to hear that concerns were raised in Michael’s guidebook published in 1899, about rising temperatures and the retreat of the glaciers.  I grew up in the 1980s, when we kept hearing all about acid rain and the hole in the ozone layer, and we tended to think of concern about climate change as being a fairly new thing.  Evidently not.

One thing that wasn’t mentioned (I wonder if it might come up in a later episode?), which was incredibly controversial, was that, after Kristallnacht, there was a proposal by the US Department of the Interior to settle refugees from Nazi Germany in Alaska – which, as Alaska wasn’t a state at that time, could have been done without causing issues with the very unpleasant US immigration quota system.   The idea, which was intended more to boost the American presence in Alaska than to help refugees, didn’t go down very well and nothing ever came of it, but I just thought that that, and the German settlements set up along the Volga at the same time as Russia was first getting involved in Alaska, were worth a thought … at a time when there are so many people living in refugee camps around the world.  /irrelevant point that just occurred to me.

Anyway – from 19th century history to the aforementioned cute furry sea otters.  Michael visited a wildlife centre, where he got to feed an extremely cute rescued sea otter pup.  It’s good to know that sea otter numbers are now making a comeback.  It’s causing some issues with fishermen (that should probably be “fisherpeople”, but even so.

From Seward, he (Michael, not the sea otter) took a wonderfully scenic railway journey towards the Spencer Glacier.  I would so love to do that!   The Alaska Railroad was built in the early 20th century, and Michael was told that, rather than being to transport gold, it was more a case of needing a way of transporting coal.   Gorgeous views.  And, hey, this is technically supposed to be a programme about railway journeys, not a historical documentary series!   Fascinating though the history of late 18th and 19th century Alaska is, it was all fairly gloomy, and it was good that the programme ended on a more cheerful note, with these spectacular views.

I have to admit that I wasn’t sure how a journey through Alaska was going to fill a whole week’s worth of episodes.  That’s quite a bit of screen time.  But, on the basis of last night’s episode, Alaska’s got more than enough to fill all that time and more.  And keep up the good work with including lots of history in there :-).  History and scenery together – excellent combination!

 

Great Lives: Laura Ingalls Wilder – Radio 4

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This didn’t half pack a lot into thirty minutes!   I have loved Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books ever since I was a little girl, and it made me rather happy 🙂 to hear them being discussed by three people – journalist Samira Ahmed, author Tracy Chevalier and Laura’s biographer Pamela Smith Hill – who obviously love them as well.  It makes me sad 😦 that the books have become the subject of so much controversy in recent years – the much-discussed issue of racism, the question of whether or not it was actually Laura’s daughter Rose Wilder Lane who did most of the writing, and the argument that the books give a completely sanitised view of events.  I thought that this programme tackled and answered all those questions really well, without letting them take the discussion over completely.

I loved how enthusiastic they all were! So often these days, you listen to or watch or read something about a particular author, and it feels as if the broadcaster or author is only interested in pulling their work to pieces.  Quite often, it feels as if they haven’t even read the books properly, especially with some of the rubbish that people spout about Enid Blyton.  What a refreshing change to hear people who were obviously genuine admirers of Laura talking about her life and work.  I always think of her as “Laura”, never as “Mrs Wilder” 🙂 .

They started off by pointing out that the books were first published during the Depression, and appealed to the sense of nostalgia for a bygone era that always tends to flourish in difficult times, and also to the whole romanticised idea of the West. I can’t say I’ve ever really been that into the whole romanticised West thing.  Westerns don’t really appeal to me that much.  I can talk all day and all night about the Civil War, the build-up to the Civil War, Reconstruction and even the Mexican War, but not so much the West.  I don’t even know that the Little House books are “Western” in the “Wild West” sense that people generally use “Western”: they certainly don’t involve showdowns at the OK Corral and all that sort of thing!  But the idea of the pioneers certainly has a very romantic appeal.  I’m being earwormed by the Pet Shop Boys’ Go West now!   One of Pa’s songs was something about “Uncle Sam is rich enough to build us all a farm”.  It’s the American Dream, to own your own land.  And the idea of the American Dream still holds today.  People are trekking across Central America because of it.

They also suggested that writing the books must have been therapeutic for Laura. Reading the books as a little kid, I had no idea that Laura had written them because she desperately needed money after her family lost their savings in the Wall Street Crash, nor about Almanzo’s health problems.  Was it therapeutic for her?  It’d be nice to think so.  And, as they also pointed out, the white settlement of the West is often presented as a male-dominated experience.  With Laura’s books, we see it from the point of view of a girl.  It’s fascinating how we get this incredibly tough lifestyle, but we also get all this really girlie stuff about dresses and hairstyles and wishing that you were prettier than you are.  I still want a delaine dress with buttons that look like berries!

One thing that wasn’t mentioned at all was the religious aspect: I don’t know why that was missed. Having said which, they did say that the books are sometimes presented – presumably in America – in a moralistic way.  Maybe it’s best not to go there.  The Bible Belt culture is something that be quite difficult to get your head round, and which I don’t think most British people are at all comfortable with.  I doubt that Laura would be too comfortable with some of what goes on, either.  As I said, best not to go there.

I never watched the TV series. I don’t know why, given how much I’ve always loved the books, but I never did.  But I gather that it’s that which is largely responsible for the saccharine sweet image that the books have got in some quarters.  As Samira and Tracy stressed, they aren’t saccharine sweet at all.  OK, some of the most unpleasant aspects of Laura’s childhood, which are in Pioneer Girl, aren’t in the Little House books; but the books, especially the early ones, were written for young children, not for adults or even for teenagers.  But the books are essentially a tale of bad luck and failure.  And, as they said, maybe that’s part of the appeal.  The Ingalls family keep having to pick themselves up, dust themselves down, and start all over again.

And Samira said exactly what I think every time I revisit the books – that, as a young reader, you think that their life sounds very exciting and that Pa is wonderful; but that, as an adult female, you think that Pa is an idiot and you feel desperately sorry for Ma. That poor woman, being dragged from pillar to post, with four kids, all because of Pa’s “itchy feet”!  I want to cheer when she finally puts her foot down and says that they’re staying put, so that she can make a nice home and the girls can go to school.

Then they, inevitably, got on to the “culture war” question. As we all know, the Association for Library Services to Children in America recently renamed its Laura Ingalls Wilder Award as the “Children’s Literature Legacy Award”, due to concerns in the books about the attitude towards Native Americans and African Americans.  It’s a very difficult and controversial subject, and I said all I had to say about it at the time.  Samira made an excellent point about how – she said especially in America, but I think it’s happening everywhere – we seem to be losing the concept of nuance.  Everything’s becoming so polarised, and people seem so keen to stick labels on things.  I think it’s largely because of people with extreme views at both ends of the spectrum dominating social media, and dominating universities: surely the majority of people do not view things in such polarised terms.  As she said, surely we can read a book and say that, yes, I enjoyed that book, but/even though there are things in it with which I’m not comfortable.  Why is that a problem?  I thought that she put that very well.

Then on to environmentalism! I am not scientifically-minded, and I can’t say that I’d ever thought very much about how digging up the topsoil on the prairies caused the Dust Bowl phenomenon of the 1930s, but, yes, it’s interesting to think that Laura lived through all that.

And then to the idea of Manifest Destiny. That I can go on about that at very great length – and obviously it’s an extremely problematic concept now, and the treatment of Native Americans, from well before Laura’s time, was beyond appalling, but it’s something that does have to be understood in order to understand the historical context of the books.  Samira commented that the US is still struggling to come to terms with this.  It doesn’t seem to be talked about that much.  The issue of discrimination against African Americans is rarely out of the news, but very little seems to be said about Native Americans – certainly far less than about the First Peoples in Canada, or the Maoris in New Zealand, or the Aboriginal Peoples in Australia.

They then made another interesting point – that the happiest book is Farmer Boy.  I’d actually have said that the happiest book was These Happy Golden Years, but I suppose that doesn’t have the level of security and comfort that Farmer Boy has.  Laura, at 15, having to go to a strange place and teach pupils who are older than she is, isn’t actually a very happy idea at all.  OK, OK, they’ve probably got it right and I’ve probably got it wrong!   And they picked up on the scene in Farmer Boy that most sticks in my mind – Almanzo’s enormous breakfast!  The amount of food they eat for breakfast!   Most people don’t eat that much in two days.  Why did Almanzo and Royal, who both seem to have had considerably more sense than Charles Ingalls, leave that life behind to Go West?  They didn’t mention Eliza Jane, but why did she Go West?   Again, it’s got to have been the American Dream.  All that hope.

And, in poor Almanzo’s case, it all came crashing down. In The Long Winter, he was this super-fit young man who heroically went off with Cap Garland to bring back supplies in order to save the residents of the town from starvation.  Then he was struck down by complications from diphtheria when he was only 31, making it impossible for him to do all the hard physical work their lifestyle required, just as several years of severe drought were making life in South Dakota incredibly difficult anyway.  It’s a sad story.  The American Dream went sour for a lot of people.  Really, it never worked out for the Ingalls family in Laura’s childhood.  The books don’t gloss over that.  And yet they’re never gloomy or miserable.  But they’re certainly not saccharine-sweet.  They might not be an exact historical reflection of Laura’s childhood and youth, but they’re very realistic.

She’s only four in the first book, and, if we include The First Four Years, she’s in her early twenties by the end of the series.  We do grow up with her – as Samira and Tracy said, the tone of the books does change, and they do move from being books for very young children to being books for young adults.  I read the lot when I was aged between about 7 and 9, but I can still read any of them, and enjoy them.

They were scathing about Rose Wilder Lane, though!   I think there’s quite a lot to admire about her life, but she certainly doesn’t sound like a particularly nice person.  They pulled apart the suggestions that she wrote most of the Little House books, and even said – quite rightly! – that Let The Hurricane Roar is basically a rip-off of Laura’s real life experiences.

They finished up by saying that adversity had been the making of Laura, which is something that I don’t think anyone can argue with. I’ve never listened to Great Lives before, so I don’t know whether it should have focussed more on why Samira Ahmed, who nominated Laura, thought they she had a “Great Life”, rather than just being a general discussion about a popular author and her much-loved books, but they got through an awful lot in half an hour, and it really was very interesting.  And it was just so nice to hear people being positive, at a time when so many people in the media only seem ready to criticise.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reginald D Hunter’s Songs of the Border – BBC 2

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Donald Trump’s bizarre obsession with building walls has given Reginald D Hunter an excuse for a road trip along the US-Mexican border and me an excuse to write about a) the Mexican War and b) how lovely San Antonio is.  This programme, far more political than musical, also reminded me about being made to learn The Streets of Laredo in primary school singing lessons.  How weird is that?  Why get a load of little kids in a North of England primary school to learn a song about dying cowboys?!   Anyway, back to the point, which was that, whatever may go on with Mr Trump and his bonkers ideas, music knows no borders, certainly not between northern Mexico and the south western United States.

I’m afraid that most of the musical references in this went over my head.  I’m not sure what I was expecting.  Fernando and Ride Like The Wind?  Just kidding – not really!  I was OK when he was talking about Ricky Martin (who’s actually from Puerto Rico) and Lou Bega (who’s actually German).  And obviously I recognised the song they played at the end, sung by one of the most famous Mexican-Americans of all time – La Bamba, by Ritchie Valens (even if I do associate it with the diner in Grease).  I think I do vaguely remember hearing about Selena, the Mexican-American singer tragically murdered in the 1990s.  But there were a lot of terms I’d never heard before.  Maybe I’m just really ignorant 😦 !  Well, I never claimed to be an expert on world music, did I?!

I now know that narcocorrido songs are ballads about drug dealers.  Nobody tell Donald Trump that, please: he’d be making all sorts of horrendous stereotypes out of it, whereas the style of music actually originates from folk music, and evolved via the norteno-corrido style of ballad that was more about the Mexican Revolution of 1910 – Pancho Villa et al.  I also know that cumbia is not a misspelling of a region of Northern England but is a form of Columbian music.  And that mariachi is a form of Western Mexican music.  According to Wikipedia, being able to play mariachi gave you a good chance of getting a job at a hacienda.  No, not the Hacienda, but an estate in colonial Mexico.

And conjunto, which sounds like something to do with either Juan Peron or the Napoleonic Wars, is a form of music played by small groups – and this is particularly interesting, because it originates in a unique form of Tex-Mex cultural crossover, involving German button accordions.  A lot of Germans settled in Fredericksburg, Texas (not to be confused with Fredericksburg in Virginia, site of the famous battle in 1862), and it still has a strongly German feel to it.  I went there in October (2014), and they were having an Oktoberfest.  The Oktoberfest idea is Bavarian, and the Fredericksburg settlers were mainly from Prussia, but you get the idea.  Loads of German bakeries, as well.  Germans also settled in Mexico (it’s OK, I’m not going to write an essay on the Austrian involvement there in the 1860s), and a lot of those settlers then moved into South Texas at the time of the Mexican Revolution.  There’s always been a lot of that to-ing and fro-ing across the border, and that was the point that Reginald D Hunter was making.

I’m not very keen on Reginald D Hunter, TBH.  I find him quite aggressive and polemical, and it sometimes seems as if he’s deliberately setting out to rile people.  For example, in the middle of this programme, he randomly started ranting about Tennessee being full of “redneck racists”. But he did make some very good points about the culture of the border area, and how the border is fluid as far as that culture goes.

He visited El Paso (Texas), where he talked to local musicians about some of the older-style border songs which present Mexicans as baddies and or involve a lot of sentimentality about doomed romances between Anglo-American men and Mexican women, and also visited Ciudad Juarez (Mexico), where there was a lot of talk about drug cartels.  In both places, people talked about frequently crossing the border to visit relatives who, legally or illegally, live on the other side.  I haven’t been to either of those places, but he said that he felt that San Antonio, although it’s not actually on the border, was the cultural capital of the border area; and that was certainly the impression that I got.

I loved San Antonio.  I’d love to go again.  What an absolutely gorgeous place.   As I said, I was in Texas in an October – and so all the preparations for the Day of the Dead were taking place.  I’d never come across that before, and I was fascinated by it.  And it’s a Mexican thing.  As Hunter said, when you’re in San Antonio, you’re not always entirely sure whether you’re in the United States or whether you’re in Mexico!  Nearly all the signs are in both English and Spanish.  I even spoke to people in Spanish a few times, whilst I was there.

San Antonio was one of the two main reasons that I wanted to go to Texas.  I wanted to see the Alamo.  We got to the hotel late afternoon, and I stopped for about five minutes to have a glass of water and dump my bags, then opened the map and bounded off to the Alamo.  It was next door to a Haagen Dazs café, which was a bit odd, but never mind.  We did go there on a proper guided tour later on, but I had to see it as soon as I’d arrived.  I’m a historian, OK!  And 19th century America is one of my specialist topics.  I was excited!

Just as a slight aside, the other main reason I wanted to go to Texas wasn’t the space centre in Houston (it was interesting enough, but I’m not a sciency person) – it was Southfork.  To quote Abba, “there’s not, I think, a single episode of Dallas that I didn’t see”.  I actually preferred Dynasty, but I loved Dallas as well.  Now, when the 2012 Dallas reboot (which sadly didn’t last long) was made, the main female character, who had affairs with both John Ross Ewing and Christopher Ewing (who also both had affairs with another woman, who turned out to be the secret daughter of Cliff Barnes) was someone who’d been born in Mexico and had emigrated from there to Texas as a child.  Even in a TV series, you can’t show Texas without showing the Mexican connection.

So.  Texas.  The “Six Flags” state – Spain, France (briefly), Mexico, the Texas Republic, the Union and the Confederacy.  When you visit the Alamo, you have to dress and behave as if you were visiting a place of worship.  It’s regarded as a sacred place.  To cut a long story short, a lot of  “Anglos” from America had settled in Mexican Texas, and, with discontent rising over the rule of President Santa Anna, Texas rebelled.  The siege of the Alamo, in 1836, although it wasn’t the decisive battle of the revolution, is the best-known.  Bowie knives, Davy Crockett hats, songs, films, etc.  An independent republic of Texas was set up – and, in 1845, serious moves began to annex it to the United States.  Most people in Texas do seem to have wanted this – the opposition came more from America, where people were concerned about what adding another big slave state to the Union was going to do to the fragile balance between slave states and free states – and, in 1846, it went ahead.

Mexico, which had never recognised Texan independence, wasn’t very pleased, and the Mexican-American War, generally known as the Mexican War, broke out.  I’ve been reading up on the Mexican War since I was 11, because it features heavily in North and South, the first book of the wonderful trilogy by John Jakes.  One of the main characters, played in the TV adaptation by the late, great, Patrick Swayze, loses an arm in the war, and has to give up his plans for a career in the Army.  OK, this has got nothing to do with music, but neither did most of what Hunter was saying: he was far more concerned with slagging off Donald Trump, and having a go at Barack Obama and Bill Clinton whilst he was at it, than in actually talking about songs of the border, or songs of anywhere else for that matter!

Despite the sad loss of Orry Main’s arm (I love those books), America won the war, and helped herself to not only Texas but also what’s now Nevada, Utah, most of Arizona, part of New Mexico, a bit of Wyoming, and the vast state of California (where gold was soon discovered – war ended in 1848, Gold Rush in 1849, admitted to the Union, as a free state, in 1850.  My Darling Clementine, not being a border song, did not get mentioned.). The rest of New Mexico and Arizona was bought in the Gadsden Purchase of 1853.  At least that bit was paid for.

So that whole area was Mexican long before it was American.  And, no, I’m not forgetting the Native Americans, but Native American culture didn’t really come into this programme.  There was a lot of movement across the border … well, even before Mexico was independent of Spain.  You weren’t supposed to settle in Texas in those days unless you were Catholic – like you weren’t supposed to settle in Savannah, Georgia, in the days when neighbouring Florida was under Spanish rule, unless you were Protestant or Jewish and definitely not Catholic – but people got round that!   And there’s been a lot of movement across the border ever since.  It’s an ongoing story – it’s about history going back many years – as with, say, the Cajun culture of Louisiana – and it’s about today, and it’s about everything in between.

Mexican immigration into the United States was actively encouraged during and immediately after the war years.  It isn’t now, but it’s still going on – and, as we all know, there’s no effective regulation of it.  This has both positive aspects and negative aspects.  There are a lot of issues with undocumented immigration, including the fact that unregistered immigrants are at risk of being taken advantage of by unscrupulous employers, and may struggle to get access to essential services.  There are undoubtedly some problems with cross-border drug smuggling.  There’s the issue of the importance of Mexican workers in the labour market in the border states.

And, as the programme kept pointing out, it’s not just a case of Mexicans going to Txas or other parts of the US and staying there.  It’s people going backwards and forwards across the border on a regular basis.  The programme was meant to be about the border being fluid in terms of music, and it did make that point, but it was also about the border being fluid in terms of the movement of people.   And it is.  Plenty of the people interviewed made that clear.  Some of that’s legal visiting.  Some of that’s illegal working.  It’s a complex situation.

There are two issues here.  One is Mexican-American culture.  Hyphenated American cultures are great.  That shouldn’t be a problem.  It’s only a problem in that there are some negative images about it.  Donald Trump’s unpleasant remarks about Mexicans tie in with those, and don’t help anyone – and it’s highly inappropriate for someone in high office to be coming out with things like that.  The other issue is immigration in general and the regulation of it.  That’s another story, and a controversial one.  But, come what may, there is this cross-border culture, much of it tied up in music.  And that makes the wall idea sound even stupider than it does anyway.

There’s so much history in music, and there’s a fair bit of music in history.  I don’t think Reginald D Hunter really wanted to talk about music.  He just wanted to have a go at American immigration policy, and this was a way of doing it.  But there was some interesting information about music in this, and interesting information about the cross-border culture in general.  And, hey, it’s given me an excuse to write a bit about the Mexican War.

I still don’t know why we had to sing The Streets of Laredo at primary school, though …

The Laura Ingalls Wilder debate

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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.

 

PROFUSE APOLOGIES IF ANYONE GOT THIS UMPTEEN TIMES – I HAD A PROBLEM WITH THE PHOTO NOT DISPLAYING PROPERLY, AND HAD TO TRY TO FIX IT!!

The Laura Ingalls Wilder debate

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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.

The Laura Ingalls Wilder debate

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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.