Montreal Gazette


Lit­tle House au­thor con­tro­ver­sial for al­le­ga­tions of racism

- MEA­GAN FLYNN Entertainment · Arts · Literature · Laura Ingalls Wilder · Unsere kleine Farm · Melissa Gilbert · United States of America · Prairie · American Athletic Conference · Washington · American Library Association · Ingalls, Arkansas · Michael Landon · Gilbert

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.”

 ??  ?? The As­so­ci­a­tion for Li­brary Ser­vice to Chil­dren has re­moved Laura In­galls Wilder’s name from its book award.
The As­so­ci­a­tion for Li­brary Ser­vice to Chil­dren has re­moved Laura In­galls Wilder’s name from its book award.

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