In Wilder’s third book Little House on the Prairie, Ma makes some derisive comments about the Native Americans, and in doing so, she expresses the opinion of her time. Years later, Ma’s comments are no longer politically correct, but when Ma made those comments, they were representative of the way that white people acted in the 1870s, the time that the story took place. Little House on the Prairie was published in 1935, and even then, white American’s felt differently about Native Americans than they do now. Should Little House on the Prairie be banned now, simply because people’s opinions have changed over time or should it be accepted as part of the history that it reflects?
A Very Brief Summary of the Situation:
When the Ingalls family moved westward and settled in Kansas, Pa elected for them to settle 3 miles inside land that had been granted to the Osage Indians, and the reader is allowed to believe that Pa did not feel that he should have been held accountable for having done so. To make matters worse, everyone’s favorite mother MA makes derisive comments about the Indians, saying that she simply didn’t like them.
Although the Laura Ingalls Wilder books have sold over 60 million copies in over 100 countries since they were published, there are some who feel that this specific book should be either banned or that its content should be censored. Although I do not agree with Pa’s flippant attitude about illegal squatting in an area that belonged to the Native Americans and although I do not agree with or appreciate Ma’s denigrating comments, I also do not believe that publishers or even librarians should even consider withholding anything that Wilder wrote in her book. The Ingalls’ behavior is true to the way that white Americans acted at the time about which they were written, and I believe that the books should stand both as literature and as a record of history.
I was born in 1950, and I grew up in the South fifteen years after Wilder’s books were published, and I cannot overemphasize how dramatically things have changed in the past eighty years.
When I was a child, African Americans could not drink from the same water fountain as white people and they also could not watch movies in the same room or ride in the same parts of public buses as the whites. There were signs everywhere about what African Americans could not do, and these distinctions were an everyday part of life during the 1950s. While I am not a racist now, racism is part of my personal story, and if I wrote honestly about my life during the 1950s, I might very well mention the racism that was part of Southern life when I was a child. After all, writers are expected to write the stories that they are living. Honesty is part of authenticity, and when writers are expected to be mute about parts of their own lives or to alter the facts, they are expected to lie.
Now, let’s return to the book Little House on the Prairie. In my opinion, no one has any right to change that book now. It accurately portrays an attitude that was openly embraced during the 1870’s, when the story took place. And Wilder told the story in a way that was acceptable in 1935. If her words became offensive to readers later, I believe that the readers need to increase their own understandings rather than trying to alter the truth of history–or in this instance of her-story.
When writers change the historical part of their historical fiction, they are no longer writing historical fiction. They are writing the evil spawn of historical fiction–propaganda, and they are evangelizing and trying to ride the coattails of would-be literature. That sounds a bit too much like the Puritanical Primers for my taste. Expecting writers to “sanitize” their tales is very much like banning books?
I grew up in the Mississippi River Delta of Southeast Missouri, and I would be fighting mad if anyone tried to take away Huck Finn again. For a time, Huck Finn was banned because it was an accurate portrayal of the racial platform of its day, and the more modern readers wanted to pretend that racism was never a part of America’s history.
I do not believe that we teach anyone anything by pretending things didn’t happen or by sticking our heads in the sand and by inviting others to do the same. The best way to teach is to allow everyone to take off their blinders and to have a closer look. If there are “adults” in the midst, they might explain the historical context of a book, but I do believe that these adults need be sure that their own biases do not overshadow the telling. I believe that it is important for every audience to keep looking at history–the entire history.
“Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
In order to avoid making the mistakes that we have made before, we must be aware of our mistakes along the way, and literature is a great way to depict the way that people live their lives.
“History repeats itself because no one was listening the first time.” – Anonymous
©Jacki Kellum October 21, 2016