Valentine’s Day Lockdown Lists

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A bit of Valentine’s Day lockdown timewasting … strange ways in which couples in books met, most romantic places which couples in books visited, key worker heroes in books (other than doctors, there are strangely few of these), and worst proposals in books.  Useless fact of the day – speaking of strange ways to meet, the song by The Hollies, about a couple who meet when they share an umbrella at a bus stop, was inspired by a no 95 bus, which goes within a few yards of my house.  Except that it didn’t then: it’s been re-routed since.  I know that people needed to know that.  As I said, timewasting …

During lockdown, people are finding it difficult to meet potential partners, except online.  Five strange ways in which couples in books met: 

  1. Meggie Cleary and Ralph de Bricassart in The Thorn Birds.  He was her priest.  Don’t try this one at home.
  2. Judy Abbott and Jervis Pendleton in Daddy Long Legs.  He funded a college scholarship for a girl from an orphanage.  She was the girl.  He wanted her to write him letters telling him how she was getting on … but he didn’t tell her that they’d actually met umpteen times and he’d concealed his identity.  I used to find this terribly romantic when I was about 9.  It now seems a bit weird.
  3. Henrietta Rawlinson and Adam Swann in God is an Englishman.  She’d run away from home and was washing her face in a puddle near Warrington.  He gave her a lift on his horse.  As you do.
  4. Madge Bettany and Jem Russell in The School at the Chalet.   They were both on a train which caught fire.  Madge bravely risked her own safety to help an unpleasant woman escape through a window.  Jem was impressed by her pluck.  Very feminist, really 🙂 .
    5. Florentyna Rosnovski and Richard Kane in The Prodigal Daughter.  They met when she was working in a shop of which he was a customer.  Seems normal enough … but she was actually hiding her real identity, and it turned out that their dads were sworn enemies.  Oh dear.

And, because of the infernal travel restrictions, we can’t go anywhere … five very romantic locations visited by couples in books:

  1. The Lake District is the most romantic part of the UK … and features in a lot of poems, but not nearly enough books.  However, lucky Damaris and Brian in Elsie J Oxenham’s Abbey books don’t just go to Grasmere, but move there to live permanently.
    2.  Venice is the most romantic city outside the UK, and is where Katy Carr and Ned Worthington in What Katy Did Next get engaged.  They aren’t a very exciting couple, and it isn’t a very exciting romance, but the fact that they get engaged in a gondola makes up for a lot.
    3.  The Italian lakes (I like water, OK) – the setting for The Betrothed, the eponymous couple being Lucia Mondella and Renzo Tramiglia.  There’s a lot of plague in this, but never mind.  Also visited by Elio Perlman and Oliver (who appears to have no surname) in Call Me By Your Name.
    4. Lake Geneva – (more lakes!) – where Amy March and Laurie Laurence get together in Good Wives.  There seems to be this idea that Amy betrayed womankind by stealing her sister’s man, but she really didn’t: Jo had turned Laurie down
    5.Russia – ignore all the political stuff: Russia is a very romantic country.  Yuri Zhivago and Lara Antipova in Dr Zhivago are one of its many well-known fictional couples.
  2. Five key worker heroes in books not already mentioned:1. Doctor – Gilbert Blythe, in the Anne of Green Gables books.
    2. Vet – Guy Charlton in the Lorna Hill Sadlers Wells books.  Guy is my hero, OK – I had to mention him somewhere!
    3. Farmer-cum-heroic-fetcher-of-food-for-entire-town – Almanzo Wilder in the Little House books.
    4. Policeman – there are loads of policemen in books, but, for some reason, most of them are either idiots or else just annoying.  The best I could come up with was more of a secret agent than a policeman, but he’ll have to do – Bill Smugs/Cunningham in the Enid Blyton adventure books.
    5. Postman/delivery man – this was even worse!   I’m struggling to think of any postmen in books, other than Courtney Elliot in the Adrian Mole books, and he’s only a minor character.  I suppose it’ll have to be Postman Pat, who does feature in books as well as TV programmes!

And, just because lockdown is not actually very romantic, unless you actually enjoy being stuck in, five really bad proposals:

1.  Mr Darcy to Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice – he tells her that her family are common and vulgar, and that he’s tried to get over his thing for her, but it hasn’t worked, so will she marry him.  She says no.  They do get together eventually, but he’s got his act together by then.
2.  Rhett Butler to Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind – this is the best book of all time, and the proposal scene is brilliant, but it’s awful as well!  Her second husband has just died, and Rhett says that he needs to go away on business so will she please get engaged to him before she goes, as, otherwise, she’ll probably have married someone else by the time he gets back.  He does talk her into it.
3. Reg Entwistle to Helena (Len) Maynard in Prefects of the Chalet School – the unheroic Reg, who’s been pestering Len for months, is fished out of a stream by her middle-aged uncle, and put to bed in her parents’ house.  She says he looks dreadful.  He then says “I take it we’re engaged.  Like it, darling?”.  She says that, yes, they are, but they mustn’t tell anyone until the end of the school term.  It’s grim.
4. St John Rivers to (his cousin) Jane Eyre, in Jane Eyre.  He says that he only wants to marry her because he wants someone to go to India with him, to be a missionary trying to convert people.  You do wonder how he’d feel if a missionary from India turned up in his Yorkshire parish and tried to convert all his congregation to a different religion.  Jane is not keen on the idea of marrying someone she doesn’t love.  He tells her that she’s “formed for labour, not for love”.  She turns him down.  Thank goodness.
5.  Bill Thistleton to Anastasia (Tazy) Kingston in The Troubles of Tazy. He says  “Are you game to fix up with one of us? [either him or his brother]”.  Either one will, presumably, do.  I think that this is the worst fictional proposal ever: even St John Rivers didn’t mention his brother (although, to be fair, he didn’t have one).  She does actually accept.  Him, not his brother.

Lockdown Timewasting over.  Thank you to anyone who’s read that.  Stay safe xxx.

 

 

 

 

 

Libertarians on the Prairie: Laura Ingalls Wilder … by Christine Woodside

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Manchester Histories recently held a “DigiFest” to mark the 50th anniversary of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act.  I thought that the anniversary would attract a lot of attention nationwide, given what an important landmark it was in terms of disability rights; but it seems to have been pretty much forgotten, which is rather a shame.  I’m mentioning it here because I think that Mary Ingalls was the first book character (not “fictional character”, as, obviously, she was a real person) with a disability whom I came across who was realistically portrayed.  She didn’t make a miraculous recovery, like Clara Sesemann in Heidi, and she didn’t just suddenly die for no apparent reason, like Rosamund Sefton in Mary-Lou of the Chalet School.  She got on with her life as best she could, a much-loved member of a family and a community.  At the same time, the loss of her sight meant significant and difficult changes for her, her parents and her sisters.

In the books, Laura takes a teaching job at the age of 15, and the entire family scrimp and save, so that they can send Mary to college.  In reality, Mary’s education was state-funded.  It’s that sort of thing which people who write academic works about Laura (I’m so glad that this book – “Libertarians on the Prairie: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose Wilder Lane, and the Making of the Little House Books”, to give it its full name!  – refers to “Laura”, not to “Wilder”, because surely everyone thinks of her as “Laura”) pick up on when arguing that the books express libertarian ideas and ideals.  It’s fascinating how much theorising about the Little House books goes on, and how they’ve become caught up in debates about the frontier theory and ideas of American history, about what America stands for, in culture wars, and even in politics.  To some extent, this happens with all well-known books – people apparently use Anne Blythe, nee Shirley,’s comments about how she doesn’t write any more now that she’s got kids as an argument against women’s lib –  but there aren’t too many parallels for the way that people go on about Ronald Reagan apparently being a fan of Laura’s books, or worry about what Laura would have thought of Donald Trump.

For all the talk about political messages, the early books, in particular, are aimed at very young children.  I read the whole series when I was about 7, and, if there were political messages in them, I didn’t get them, any more than I got the religious messages in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe or even the much less subtle ones in Little Women.  I was genuinely impressed by the much-discussed epiphany scene in Little Town of the Prairie, but only because I took it to mean that all American schoolkids knew the entire Declaration of Independence off by heart.  But, yes, reading the books now, I can see what the academics who make these arguments are getting at.

I don’t think that this book made a particularly strong argument for Laura’s books as an expression of libertarianism, though, certainly not to the extent that Prairie Fires  did.  It wasn’t that the arguments were weak, just that libertarianism wasn’t actually mentioned that much.  Most of it was about the relationship between Laura and her daughter Rose, and the argument over whether or not Rose edited, even co-wrote, and was pretty much responsible for the final versions of the books.  As far as Christine Woodside’s concerned, there’s no argument – Rose played a far bigger part in the writing of the books than has ever been acknowledged.

Would it matter so much if she had?  Well, according to Christine Woodside, yes, it would, because we, the readers, don’t want to accept that the books are not the Word of Laura.  Or, indeed, that they’re not the True Word of Laura: I must confess to being quite upset when I had to accept that the life of the Ingalls family wasn’t exactly as it’s set out in the books!  As Christine Woodside points out, there’d be quite a to-do today if someone wrote a series of books which they claimed were autobiographical, and then it turned out that they’d changed a load of things and left a load of things out.  But times were different then.  Today, we’d just say that the books were “based on” the lives of the Ingalls family.  Which they were.

I personally don’t accept the theory that Rose did most of the work on the books.  I accept that she did some work on them, but I still think that they’re mostly Laura.  Let The Hurricane Roar, which Rose did write,  isn’t a patch on the Little House books.  Christine Woodside obviously thinks differently, and that’s fair enough, but I wish that she’d presented a more balanced view, and not gone 100% for the Rose theory.

I’d also have liked more about Laura and less about Rose, something which I find with all academic works about the Little House books.  The book also covers what happened after Rose’s death, i.e. the rather sad tale about how the copyright ended up in the hands of Roger MacBride, which wasn’t at all what Laura had wanted, but the positive, or negative, depending on how you look at it, story of how he got the TV series going and turned the books into a big franchise.  I do not like that word.  It does my head in when I hear American football teams referred to as “franchises”.  Did the TV series help to keep the popularity of the books going?  I don’t know.  For some reason, I never watched it.   It’s all about the books for me.

There are quite a few books about Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane.  If you’ve read one of them, this one won’t tell you anything that you don’t already know.  If you want to read more about the libertarian theories, Caroline Fraser’s “Prairie Fires” is better.  But this isn’t bad, and I’m always glad to read another book about Laura.  She was a big part of my childhood, and one of the reasons I’ve always loved American history.  And nothing is ever going to change that!

 

Ten hair disasters in fiction

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Well, I’m very grateful that my lovely hairdresser fitted me in for a cut and dye four days before the UK went into lockdown, but it’s really getting to the point where it needs doing again.  I’ve got as far as acquiring some roots touch-up stuff, but I haven’t dared use it yet.  I’m scared of trying to dye my own hair.  I blame Anne Shirley.  There’ve been quite a few other hair-related disasters in fiction, as well …

Ten hair-related disasters in books/films/soap operas:

  1. Anne Shirley dyes her hair green – Anne of Green Gables.
  2. Frenchie dyes her hair pink – Grease.
  3.  Jo March burns some of her sister Meg’s hair off with curling irons – Little Women.
  4. Simone Lecoutier cuts her own hair off to try to impress Jo Bettany – The School at the Chalet.
  5. Bridget Jones tries to straighten her hair by ironing it – The Edge of Reason.
  6. Mr Brocklehurst demands that the hair of all the girls at Lowood School be cut – Jane Eyre.
  7. Maria Sutherland dyes Vera Duckworth’s hair purple – Coronation Street .
  8. Amy Ashe has all her hair cut off due to illness – What Katy Did Next.
  9. Ruey Richardson’s home perm goes wrong – Ruey Richardson, Chaletian.
  10. Maggie Tulliver cuts off her own hair – The Mill on the Floss.

But hey.  There’s always Laura Ingalls giving herself an amazing “lunatic fringe” in Little Town in the Prairie

 

Fictional characters and the coronavirus

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This is meant as gallows humour, OK.  If you are one of the people who thinks no-one should be joking, please don’t have a go at me – I’ve got an anxiety disorder and am permanently convinced everything I say or do offends people anyway!  But I was reading a ridiculously pompous “critique” of Little Women the other day – Jo having her hair cut symbolises castration, seriously?! – and I started thinking that Beth March would never have got scarlet fever if she’d practised social distancing with the Hummels.  Then I started thinking that, if Helen Carr were around now, she’d be writing some sick-making poem about “The School of Self-Isolation”.  And what about other fictional characters?  A few thoughts …

1.  Adrian Mole would chronicle it all carefully, and constantly be convinced that he’d got the virus when he hadn’t.

2.  Anne Shirley would think up dramatic-sounding names for everything.  “Covid-19” is really pretty naff compared to “the Black Death”.  “The sweating sickness” is at least descriptive, and “the plague” sounds very Biblical.  “Covid-19” sounds like a robot off an ’80s children’s TV programme.

3. Bertha Rochester wouldn’t notice any difference – she’d been locked on the upper floor for years, and never gathered in groups of more than two people.

4. Beth March would be so keen to help struggling neighbours that she wouldn’t observe social distancing and would end up being ill herself 😦 .

5. Gwendoline Mary Lacey would insist that she should be allowed into the supermarket during the times reserved for vulnerable people, due to having a “weak heart”.

6. Heidi wouldn’t need to think about panic-buying food, because she’d stockpiled all those white buns, but she might end up being fined for breaking the curfew due to sleepwalking.

7.  Helen Carr would write a vomit-inducing poem called “The School of Self-Isolation”, about how it was bringing you closer to the angels.

8. Joey Bettany would catch the virus from standing by an open door whilst someone passed within six feet of her, and would be terribly ill but would recover after being serenaded with “The Red Sarafan”.

9. Laura Ingalls (OK, not actually fictional, but never mind) would say that the virus was transmitted by eating watermelons.  I love Laura’s books to bits, but where on earth did the watermelon thing come from?!

10. Scarlett O’Hara would cut up the curtains to use as toilet paper.  Bobbie and Phyllis from The Railway Children would do the same with their petticoats.

Gallows humour, OK?  Gallows humour!!

Stay safe and well, everyone xxx.  And I apologise if I annoy people by over-posting, but just ignore me if so – I can’t really work much from home as I need access to files and other things, so I’ll need to write to keep my brain active!

Ten book characters who’d be good in this time of crisis

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I’ve said “book” rather than “fictional” because I think I could do with having Almanzo Wilder and Cap Garland around, to go out for supplies if the Toilet Paper Hoarders (an issue not actually mentioned by Laura Ingalls Wilder, come to think of it) strip all the local shops’ shelves bare.  On a more serious note, I’ve just had a message from my favourite café, urging people to buy, if possible, from small local businesses which are really going to struggle to weather this situation.  If there’s an equivalent of the De Smet store nearby, and it isn’t out of barrels of wheat or Ma’s sewing ribbons or whatever, that sounds like a very good suggestion.  So, who would be the best book characters to have around?

1a and 1b – Almanzo Wilder and Cap Garland, from The Long Winter.  They heroically went out in the heavy snow and ice, and made a 24 mile round trip to bring back supplies and save the whole town of De Smet from starvation.  No mention of hand sanitiser or toilet roll, admittedly, but still.

2 – Jane Eyre, from (to state the obvious) Jane Eyre.  Jane lived through the typhus epidemic at Lowood School.  She’s been there and done that.  OK, she left her stuff on a coach, but no-one’s perfect.

3 – Melanie Wilkes from Gone With The Wind.  One of the genuinely inspiring things about Gone With The Wind is the way that all the petted Southern ladies go to work in the hospital, in horrible conditions.  Scarlett hates it, but Melanie throws herself into even the most unpleasant of work.  She’s also practical – she accepts donations from the local brothel, because the hospital needs it, when everyone else gets all holier-than-thou over it.  Melanie is clearly a gal to have by your side in difficult times.

4. Karen from the Chalet School books.  Whilst Matron Besley is getting hysterical over a thunderstorm, Karen calmly marshals all the domestic staff to make sandwiches and hot drinks for everyone.  And she’d be able to make something nice out of whatever food you’d got left in stock.  She managed to feed everyone during the “Famine” in the early Swiss years, even when Miss Annersley sent some of her flour over to the Maynards.  Just a shame that she specialises in coffee rather than tea, but, as with Jane, no-one’s perfect.

5. Madge Russell from the Chalet School books.  Madge’s words about being brave look like they’re going to be sorely needed over the next few weeks, and probably months.

6. Henry Tilney from Northanger Abbey.  Being quarantined with Mr Darcy sounds rather nice, but he’d probably do your head in after a few days of being together 24/7 with no-one else around.  Henry Tilney, on the other hand, would make you laugh and keep your spirits up.

7. Charlotte, Duchess of Southport from the Morland Dynasty books, who sets up her own hospital.  OK, she was well able to afford it, but not everyone was so philanthropic and so concerned for other people’s well-being.  If you can help in any way, please do so.

8. Tatiana Metanova from The Bronze Horseman, who survives the Siege of Leningrad, works as a wartime nurse, donates her own blood to save her husband’s life, drives to the Finnish border despite being shot, and persuades the US authorities to let her into America.  As you do.  She copes with any sort of crisis!

9. Katy Carr from the What Katy Did books.  For a start, she’d tidy everything up if you didn’t feel up to doing it, as she did for Miss Jane. She’d look after the kids if the schools were closed.   And she wouldn’t mind her holiday plans falling through, seeing as she seems to hate everywhere she visits anyway.  When you got all upset over your holiday of a lifetime being kyboshed, she’d just tell you that you didn’t really want to go there anyway, because the weather was horrible and so was the food.

10. Gilbert Blythe, from the Anne of Green Gables books.  Well, the list has to include a doctor, and it may as well be one who can double as a romantic hero.  I would obviously prefer Guy Charlton from the Lorna Hill books, but I’m not sure people’d really want to be treated by a vet.

If anyone’s reading this, hope that you and yours are OK in these difficult times, and, if there are any book characters you’d particularly like to have around at the moment, please share ideas!!

Prairie Fires: the American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser

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I was ever so slightly nervous about reading this, because I was worried that it was going to be negative about my beloved Little House books; but, fortunately, it wasn’t.  What it did was to set them into a historical context, both in terms of when they were set and when they were published, untangle some of the myths from the realities – although not in the same detail that Pioneer Girl did – , tell us more about the Ingalls/Wilder family’s history before and after about the books (although there was rather too much about the unlikeable Rose Wilder Lane), make a number of points about the unintentional but severe damage done to the environment by the homesteaders, dispel the idea that it was actually Rose, not Laura, who wrote the books, and discuss how the books not only have a significant place in American culture but have helped to create it. The irony of it all is that the American Dream of independent landownership didn’t work for Laura and her family, but that she created a different American Dream in and by becoming one of the best-selling and best-loved American authors of all time.

I first read the Little House books as a young child in the early 1980s, so I didn’t really get the effect that they might have had on readers at the time of publication, who were living through the Depression and the Second World War; and I’d never really thought about it that much. Nor did I watch the TV series. I don’t know why, when I’ve always loved the books so much, but it was more of a ‘70s thing than an ‘80s thing, although it was still being shown in the ‘80s. And the idea of the wholesomeness of the pioneer lifestyle being an antidote to the shock of Watergate wouldn’t really have applied outside the US anyway. So there was a lot in this book which, in nearly 40 years of reading the series, had never really crossed my mind before. What I have thought about a lot over the years, since I was 11 and got really into 19th century American history – thanks largely to Patrick Swayze in the mini-series of North and South – was how the books fitted into the context of the period of history during which they’re actually set.

A lot has been said about the issues of the effects of the Homestead Act on Native Americans, and how, even when so much other land had been opened up to white settlers with little regard to the fate of those people already living there, the Ingalls family and others still built houses in the few areas left as designated “Indian Territory”. I’m not going to say it all again, but obviously it does need to be mentioned (in case anyone’s reading this). I’ve said all I’ve got to say here. Caroline Fraser does address the issue, but her focus is more on the idea of the American Dream of independent landownership, the idea that went back to Jeffersonian democracy. This idea of the independent little man or woman still lingers on: there’s still the idea that the American War of Independence was won by a load of small farmers, and there’s still the idea of the romantic West. “Go West, life is peaceful there. Go West, in the open air.”

Yes, I know that the Pet Shop Boys have got nothing to do with American pioneers, but I like their lyrics! And, theoretically, “going West” was for everyone. Former slaves could put in claims on homesteads. So could single women, like Eliza Jane Wilder. So could recent immigrants who’d applied for citizenship: several Scandinavian families are mentioned in the books. It did sound like a dream. “Uncle Sam is rich enough to give us all a farm,” as Pa sang.

But it all went pretty horribly wrong, especially for Laura and her family, and that’s what much of this book is about. That sounds miserable. It’s not a miserable book, but … well, they didn’t half have some bad luck. The weather didn’t help. All those droughts. The Long Winter. And the locusts. Every time I hear locusts mentioned, I think of Laura. How soul-destroying to have your crops just wiped out like that, before your very eyes, and with nothing you could do about it. Laura’s family were particularly unlucky, having to contend not only with that but with Mary losing her sight – although I always find their care for Mary, and how hard they worked to make sure that she was able to go to college, one of the greatest positives of the books – and then Almanzo, strong, super-fit Almanzo, suffering an illness which left him permanently debilitated and unable to do heavy manual labour.

I always think of Laura as “Laura”, incidentally.  The book generally refers to her as “Wilder”.  I found that vaguely irritating, even though I suppose it looked a lot more professional than using her first name.  But maybe that’s just me.  She will always be “Laura” to me.

The book devotes a lot of space to environmental issues, which are obviously very topical at the moment. The title, “Prairie Fires”, refers to a major wildfire which spread through Wisconsin in 1871 and killed around 1,500 people, and a lot of attention is paid to the long-term problems caused by farmers removing the crucial layer of topsoil across the mid-West – which, ultimately, led to the Dust Bowl nightmare of the 1930s. And it was in that context, the Depression and the Dust Bowl, that the books were written, and the point that Caroline Fraser’s making is that that’s as important in understanding the books as a knowledge of the 1870s and 1880s is. From Laura’s own point of view, there was the basic issue of needing to earn some money, after she and Almanzo lost what little savings they had following the Wall Street Crash, but the appeal of the books was rooted in those years – a nostalgia for a romanticised era of pioneering and open prairies, and the steadfastness of people who struggled through one hardship after another and kept going. Bizarrely, The Long Winter apparently became very popular in immediate post-war Japan. I find it rather odd that people in immediate post-war Japan would have wanted to read American books, but the US Army decided that a children’s book about overcoming hardship would appeal to the Japanese as they tried to rebuild their country after years of war, defeat, and two atomic bombs, and it did!

The point’s also made that Little Town on the Prairie and These Happy Golden Years, which are far more upbeat, were published during the war – and also that Oklahoma, another story about the romantic West, opened during the war years as well. Again, they were providing nostalgia, but it was a different sort of nostalgia, more suited to wartime. I don’t know how much of that was a happy coincidence, though. As the book says, Laura must have found it very difficult writing about the bad times in the middle books of the series, and she was probably very glad to get on to the days of name cards, autograph albums, Cap Garland’s party, and sleigh rides with Almanzo. I never really thought of Almanzo as a romantic hero when I first read the books, but he is, isn’t he? Going all the way to the Brewsters’ and back, every weekend, in the snow and ice, to bring Laura home, and then taking her back again? That’s impressive!

The series should really have ended there. Caroline Fraser clearly very much feels, and I agree, that writing about her family’s experiences helped Laura to lay some ghosts about the bad times, and that she wanted the series to end on a happy note, with her marriage to Almanzo. Admittedly it’s not the most cheerful of weddings – it always upsets me that Ma, Pa and Laura’s sisters weren’t there – but it’s a traditional happy ending. The First Four Years, which was only ever published so that Roger McBride, the rather unpleasant character who ended up with the copyright to the books, could make money from it, is so bleak.

It’s real, though – and, as Pioneer Girl explained, a lot of the more unpleasant aspects of Laura’s childhood were missed out of the earlier books, including the death of her brother, who isn’t even mentioned, the period that the Ingalls family spent working at a rather dodgy-sounding saloon, a man coming into her bedroom, Mrs Brewster threatening her husband with a knife, and a neighbour wanting Laura’s parents to sell her to them into what would now be termed modern slavery. A lot of that couldn’t have been included in children’s books even if Laura had wanted it in, but it doesn’t seem that she did … and that worked both for her and for America.

For Laura, it meant that she didn’t have to criticise her beloved Pa for getting them into another fine mess. OK, Pa was not to blame for the economic and environmental disasters, but he undoubtedly made some poor decisions. Even with the books as they are, the more I read them, the less sympathy I have for his “itchy feet” and the more sympathy I have for Ma. From America’s viewpoint, it meant that American children’s literature got a series of much-loved books which show a loving family of brave pioneers, heading ever westwards, overcoming disaster and reaching a happy ending.

It’s very sad that, 50 years later, the Ingalls family were still struggling … although so were most people during the Depression. It certainly hit my neck of the woods, Northern England, very hard, although at least people here didn’t have to contend with layers of dust on everything. Laura and Almanzo actually seem to have fared the best. Carrie was in such dire straits that she was reduced to writing to the Wilders to ask if they had any old clothes they could spare, and Grace and her husband went on a state aid programme which paid them to leave their land fallow. So much for the American Dream. But then that’s how it goes. Boom and bust. It’s just that the Ingalls family seemed to get precious little boom, even during the years of the Dakota Boom.

I know it’s daft, but somehow I always have it in my head that anyone whose ancestors came over on the Mayflower must be living in a mansion in Beacon Hill or uptown New York. I have no idea why I think that: it’s completely illogical! I do find it fascinating that Laura had an ancestor who came over on the Mayflower, though. The book does include quite a bit about the history of the Ingalls family, although very little about Ma’s family, the Quiners. There never seems to be much information available about the Quiners. I’m sure someone would have found it if there was. And I also find it interesting that Laura was a distant relative of Franklin Roosevelt … especially as both she and her daughter Rose seem to have had it in for him.

There is a lot about Rose Wilder Lane in this book. I could have done without most of it. Rose is a very interesting character in her own right, and one who led a very interesting life, but the book was supposed to be about “the American dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder”, not the life, times and political views of Rose Wilder Lane. I never find Rose a very appealing character, and Caroline Fraser clearly can’t stand her, so I don’t know why she wanted to include so much about her. Maybe it was to reiterate the point that it was Laura, not Rose, who was primarily responsible for writing the books. Maybe she just felt that she didn’t have enough to say about Laura without including Rose too.

If you want to read all about Rose and her political views, you will find plenty to read about in here. She apparently said that the Second Amendment gave people the right to take up arms to overthrow their own government. And that wartime rationing was economic slavery and that she wanted no truck with it … whilst busily stockpiling food, presumably with no thought for the fact that other people might also have wished to be able to eat.

And that is another big theme of the book – “small government”. Rose was very into “libertarianism”, and so, to some extent, was Laura. They were not impressed with the New Deal and the idea of government intervention. So, how, and to what extent, does this tie in with the idea of the American Dream of being an independent small-scale landowner?

OK. I love the United States. I love American history. But I do not get the frontier theory. I do not get the idea of uniqueness. No offence, but I don’t. Even Rose’s ranting about overthrowing the government is basically Hobbes and Locke and the idea of the social contract. That’s the Glorious Revolution of 1688. It’s not something that started in the 1770s, and it’s certainly not about the 1930s. And Laura’s freedom epiphany thing in Little Town on the Prairie, when she talks about there being no king above Pa. Well, no, but there was a president. And it’s not as if Queen Victoria or the Kaiser or the Tsar were breathing down the necks of small farmers. And laissez-faire – well, without writing an essay on Manchester economics or the Anti Corn Law League, or the rows in Victorian British politics over whether or not to make education compulsory, that’s hardly a uniquely American thing or anything to do with the frontier. So I’m afraid I just don’t get the “uniqueness” theory.  I love America.  I just don’t get that particular theory.

Moving on from the idea of uniqueness, what about the idea of freedom and small government generally? Well … what Laura says, in her freedom epiphany moment, is that it’s about the freedom to be good. Well, yes, but, unfortunately, the theory doesn’t work. Take the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Very little in the way of Factory Acts/what would now be called health and safety legislation in the US in 1911. Doors to the stairwells and the exits were locked, to stop workers, mostly female immigrants with no-one in high places to speak up for them, from getting out even for “comfort breaks”. 146 people were killed. Take the appalling accommodation in which most of them had probably been living. What use was the “freedom to be good” to them? Their landlords and their employers had the freedom to be good, but they also had the freedom to exploit. I know all the theories about how society, left to it, will work towards the greatest happiness of the greatest number, but, unfortunately, they don’t work. I certainly can’t be doing with nanny states telling me what to eat and what to drink, but things in the 1930s were so bad that I think Roosevelt had to act. Anyway, that’s my two penn’orth!

Incidentally, one of the first things that Roosevelt did was to take steps to try to conserve soil in the prairie states.  Nothing had been done about it until then.

Did libertarianism have a big impact on the Laura’s books? I’m not entirely convinced that it did.  They’re not really political, apart from that one Fourth of July celebration – which, incidentally, convinced my very young self that all American schoolchildren knew the Declaration of Independence off by heart!   No-one sits around discussing whether or not the government should help those affected by the locust swarms, or whether someone from outside should be trying to get food supplies to the residents of De Smet during the Long Winter.  The subject just doesn’t arise.

Of course, without the Homestead Act, and without the railways, they wouldn’t have been Going West anyway …

The Homestead Act was meant to offer an American Dream, but, for the Ingalls family and many others, it was just one long struggle. They may very well have done better to have stayed in Wisconsin. And yet, because of Laura, there’s this idea that the pioneering lifestyle was something truly wonderful. How did she do it? She may have glossed over a lot of things, but the books are hardly sanitised and romanticised: the Ingalls family goes through some very hard times. And they’re not profound, either: the early ones, in particular, are written in very simplistic language, for very young children. You don’t study them for school exams. They haven’t been re-interpreted over and over again, and made into umpteen different films, like Little Women has. And yet they’re so important in American culture, they’re popular worldwide, and they have helped to shape the popular view of a time and a place. Whatever the current debates over the books, that’s an immense achievement. It wasn’t the American Dream that the Ingalls family set out to live, but it’s an amazing one.

Gosh, that was a lot of waffle, wasn’t it?  If anyone’s actually read all that, thank you so much, and please let me know!  And the fact that I have written all that just says how much I enjoyed this book.  It’s not always easy to read a scholarly book about childhood favourite books and authors, but, even if there was rather too much about the unlikeable Rose, I’m very glad to have read this one.

 

 

 

Things we did because of children’s books …

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Making everyone in my primary school class sign my autograph album, sticking “Bold Bad Girl” notices on other kids’ backs in the playground, trying to make invisible ink with orange juice, tying “wings” on an armchair to see if it’d fly (it didn’t), telling myself that I liked Turkish Delight (I don’t), trying to write a pantomime (starring my dolls), insisting on having waffles on my first visit to America, hiding food to keep for midnight feasts and, to cap it all, insisting that my dad make up stories about Amelia Jane because Enid Blyton hadn’t written enough of them (sorry, Dad).  And even going to Oberammergau in 2010.  “Things we did because of children’s books” have come up in a few people’s blog posts recently, so I thought I’d write a couple of top ten lists.  And I think part of the reason I’m so keen on writing things in list form anyway is because Judy does it in Daddy -Long -Legs.

It was mostly Enid Blyton books. Despite (or possibly because of) the fact that teachers in the late ’70s and early ’80s had an absolute down on Enid Blyton, and were always telling us not to read her books, I adored them and so did a lot of the other kids in my class at primary school. We used to plot to sneak out of our respective homes at night, meet up and go off on adventures. We never did (and I’m not sure that there were that many adventures to be had – we lived on housing estates in North Manchester, not in smugglers’ coves or anywhere with stately homes haunted by banshees), but it sounded good. But here’s a list of ten things that I/we did do:

1. Sticking notices on other kids’ backs, like in The Naughtiest Girl in the School. This was actually the brainwave of another girl in my class – she and I were a very bad influence on each other! Unfortunately, they just fell off after a minute. How did they get them to work at Whyteleafe?! They must have used pins, but surely you’d feel it if someone was pinning something to your back!

2. Trying to make invisible ink with orange juice – thank you, the Five Find-Outers. It sort of works …

3. Tying wings (I think they might have been luggage labels) on to a big armchair that we used to have at home, to see if it’d fly like the Wishing Chair did. It didn’t. Very disappointing.

4. Hiding food from tea (including carrots, for some bizarre reason), so that my sister and I could have a midnight feast. But we were only little kids at the time, and we always fell asleep before midnight. And it wouldn’t have been quite the same as getting the whole class together round the Malory Towers swimming pool anyway.

5. Getting my dad (who is very good at making up stories for little kids) to come up with new stories about Amelia Jane, because I was put out that Enid Blyton hadn’t written more of them. Poor Dad!!

6. Writing a pantomime, like Darrell Rivers did. However, whilst Darrell had the whole of her class at Malory Towers to take the parts, I only had my dolls and teddy bears, which was a bit of a problem as (unlike Amelia Jane) they couldn’t actually talk.

7. Sending people to Coventry. Ouch. I feel awful about this now! The bitchy girls in the Malory Towers and St Clare’s books were always sending people to Coventry, and I’m afraid that we once decided to do this to someone who’d been causing trouble. We were only about 8 at the time, to be fair, and I don’t think it lasted past one dinnertime, but I do remember doing it.

8. Deciding that the island in Heaton Park lake was a mysterious island with strange things going on on it, like in The Island of Adventure. Highly unlikely. It’s very small, and clearly visible from the café, and somewhat devoid of abandoned mines or secret tunnels.

9. Trying to make a lacrosse stick by tying a piece of wood to a bin.

10. Telling myself that any bit of woodland I went into was the Enchanted Forest. I still kind of do this! I don’t expect to see Silky and Moonface, but being in woodland always makes me think of Enid Blyton books, even now.

And ten things from children’s books by other authors:

1. Getting everyone in my class at primary school to write messages in an autograph album, like Laura Ingalls Wilder did in … was in Little Town on the Prairie or These Happy Golden Years? I think autograph albums were a thing at the time anyway, but I liked the idea of being like Laura. I’ve still got it. One person wrote “Lose weight” – what a horrible thing to do!  Most of the other kids wrote really sweet things, though, or funny things.  Bless them! I wonder what happened to them all.

2. Having ballet lessons, so that I could be a ballerina like … I was going to say like Lydia in the Noel Streatfeild Gemma books, but, much as I loved those books, I couldn’t actually stand Lydia! Like Veronica or Jane in the Lorna Hill Sadler’s Wells books, then. Preferably Jane, so that I could marry Guy Charlton. This did not end well. Clumsy, unco-ordinated fat kids had to stand in the back row and weren’t allowed to do any proper dancing, just wave their arms about. I packed it in after a couple of years. So much for being a ballerina!

3. Convincing myself that, like Caroline Scott in No Castanets at the Wells, I would magically shed my “puppy fat” and become slim and glamorous once I got to my mid-teens. Thirty years after reaching my mid-teens, I’m still waiting!

4. Insisting on trying waffles almost as soon as I set foot in the United States for the first time, because Lilly Page made such a fuss about them in What Katy Did At School. As I soon found out, they are rather over-rated.

5. So is Turkish delight, as eaten by Edmund in C S Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It tastes like hair lacquer. Why did I keep trying to convince myself that I liked it?!

6. Wanting to live on a boat, like Noel Streatfeild’s Margaret in Thursday’s Child (and also various kids in Enid Blyton books). I mean, why?! I’d get claustrophobic. And what are the sanitary facilities like?!

7. Wanting to own a pony, like Jinny in the Patricia Leitch books. Again, why?! I am scared of getting close to horses! I always think they’re going to bite me.

Interestingly, the “because of children’s books” things that I was still doing even once I was supposedly grown up were mostly from the Chalet School books. That probably says a lot about how good Elinor Brent-Dyer’s writing is, certainly in the early part of the series. Mind you, there are also the things I still won’t do – including dyeing my own hair, after L M Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables dyed hers green by mistake. I even told my hairdresser that. She must have thought I was mad.

8. Telling my bemused modern history professor that, no, I did not want to write an essay about the French Revolution – I wanted to write one about the Austro-Hungarian Empire instead. And I got an A+ for it (apologies for showing off)! I would have explained, but I didn’t think he was really a Chalet School sort of person.

9. Having to have coffee and cream cakes all the time, whenever I’m in Central Europe, despite the fact that I very rarely drink coffee at home (I have umpteen cups of tea a day) and really should not be eating cream cakes. EBD, I blame you for this!

10. Going to the Passion Play in Oberammergau in 2010. Religion isn’t my thing, and I don’t think I’d have thought of going if it hadn’t been for The Chalet School and Jo. And I’m so glad I did, because it was a lovely experience, on a lovely sunny day.

Those are just 20 things. There are millions more.  I still have to remember not to call my best friend from school by the silly nickname we gave her because of a Beverly Cleary book, and which kind of stuck  – and which she prefers to forget about.  Having a February birthday, I used to write “The Secret Diary of [Name] aged x and 3/4” on diaries – thank you, Adrian Mole.  And I still tend to write lists mid-prose, like Judy does in Jean Webster’s Daddy-Long-Legs.  

And I’ve still never actually had a midnight feast …

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.