I loved reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books as a child. Then when my girls were old enough, I started to read the series to them and discovered that I had to edit the crap out of the lavish racism lest my daughters burst into tears with horror. Which then inspired me to ponder the meaning of the books and their place in American life. How about their place in history? They were first person accounts of the 1870s & 1880s Western expansion of America, right?
It turns out the books are a mixture of some real events, some fictionalized versions of real events, and some flat-out fiction. Moreover, they weren’t really “written” by Laura Ingles Wilder. They were bits of her writing reworked and made delightfully readable by her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane.
Knowing that so much of it was fictionalized or fiction made me feel differently about the books, which I had accepted as gospel as a kid. It also made me wonder, should I be reading racist fiction to my daughters even with the racism edited out? Was this history? Or was it propping up racism against Native Americans?
Michelle McClellan, a professor in the History Department at the University of Michigan, has the best answer to those questions. She said:
“I think it’s important to keep in mind that the books were written in the 1930s and 1940s, depicting the 1870s and 1880s – that’s two layers of remove from us in time, with many changes of attitudes and vocabulary in between. Some of the characters express views that are profoundly racist toward American Indians, especially “Ma,” Laura’s mother. Importantly, though, Laura’s father, “Pa,” disagrees with his wife and offers an alternative view, insisting that Indians should be judged as individuals and that they often have skills and knowledge that whites lack. The character of Laura asks naïve questions about why they are going to settle where Indians already live, and although her parents do not answer her satisfactorily, the fact that she even asks gives readers an opening to think about western settlement in more nuanced ways.
Of course, the Ingalls as white settlers were engaged in the dispossession of native peoples, and the absence of Indians in many of the books is a profound erasure. For all these reasons, the books have been banned in some schools. In light of this, I find the reflections of the late Native American anthropologist Michael Dorris provocative. He recalled enjoying the books as a child, but debated whether to read them to his daughters. He concluded that Native American children do not need to be protected from the knowledge that their ancestors suffered; they already know that. But he insisted that white children should be exposed to the complicated and, at times, ugly motivations of those who settled the West. So he argued for thoughtful engagement with books like this, including thinking critically about why they have become classics, rather than ignoring or banning them.”
Now, all I have to do is recover from the fact that the 16th century English the word “ingles” meant, according to the information in the book Filthy Shakespeare, the passive male homosexual sex partners. It puts a different slant on the name Laura Ingalls Wilder, doesn’t it?