AWARD DROPS WILDER’S NAME
Little House author controversial for allegations of racism
A long-simmering controversy has caught up with a well-known author of beloved children’s books.
Laura Ingalls Wilder was on the brink of having an award named in her honour, from the Association for Library Service to Children, when in 1952 a reader complained to the publisher of Little House on the Prairie about what the reader found to be a deeply offensive statement about Indigenous Peoples.
The reader pointed specifically to the book’s opening chapter, Going West.
The 1935 tale of the pioneering family seeking unvarnished, unoccupied land opens with the character Pa, modelled after Wilder’s own father, who tells of his desire to go “where the wild animals lived without being afraid.”
Where “the land was level, and there were no trees.”
And where “there were no people. Only Indians lived there.”
The editor at Harper’s who received the reader’s complaint wrote back saying it was “unbelievable” to her that not a single person at Harper’s ever noticed, for nearly 20 years, that the sentence appeared to imply that Indigenous Peoples were not people, according to a 2007 biography of Wilder by Pamela Smith Hill.
Yet Harper’s decision in 1953 to change “people” to “settlers” in the offending sentence did little to quell the critics in later decades, who began describing Wilder’s depictions of Indigenous Peoples and some blacks — and her storylines evoking white settlers’ manifestdestiny beliefs — as racist.
Now, after years of complaints, the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association, says it voted on June 23 to strip Wilder’s name from the award.
In its decision to remove Wilder’s name from the award, the library association had cited “antiNative and anti-Black sentiments in her work” when it announced the review of Wilder’s award in February.
The award, reserved for authors or illustrators who have made a “significant and lasting contribution to children’s literature,” will no longer be called the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award. It’s now 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,” the association says on its website.
Wilder was the first to win the award in 1954, when she was in her late 80s and nearing the end of her life.
Until her death in 1957, she was beloved for the semi-autobiographical Little House children’s books, fictionalized versions of her family’s adventures travelling the western frontier in their covered wagon and its encounters with Indigenous Peoples.
A popular TV series loosely based on the books ran for nine seasons from 1974 to ’83, starring Michael Landon as Pa and Melissa Gilbert as Laura.
Born just after the U.S. Civil War in 1867 and having lived through both the economic turmoil of 1893 and Great Depression in the 1930s, Wilder once acknowledged that “in my own life I represented a whole period of American history.”
But by the same measure, critics say, her family’s intrusion on Indigenous Peoples lands, particularly in Little House on the Prairie, represented a whole period of abuse against tribes across the U.S., justified by white settlers’ belief that Indigenous Peoples didn’t count as settlers on their ownland.
The book includes multiple statements from characters saying, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.”
In 1998, an eight-year-old girl on the Upper Sioux Reservation was so disturbed after hearing her teacher read the statement aloud in class that she went home crying, leading her mother to unsuccessfully petition the school district to ban the book from its curriculum.
Still, Caroline Fraser, author of Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, argued that the racial insensitivity in Wilder’s books should not mean children shouldn’t read it.
In a March column for The Washington Post, after the association announced that it was con- sidering stripping Wilder’s name from the award, Fraser argued the library association “evokes the anodyne view of literature” that it has fought against, and that no book, “including the Bible, has ever been ‘universally embraced.’”
“Each generation revises the literary canon.
“While the answer to racism is not to impose purity retroactively or to disappear titles from shelves, no eight-year-old Dakota child should have to listen to an uncritical reading of Little House on the Prairie,” she wrote.
“But no white American should be able to avoid the history it has to tell.”