Saturday, February 02, 2008
Little House on the Prairie
Wilder, Laura Ingalls. 1935. Little House On the Prairie.
A long time ago, when all the grandfathers and grandmothers of today were little boys and little girls or very small babies, or perhaps not even born, Pa and Ma and Mary and Laura and Baby Carrie left their little house in the Big Woods of Wisconsin. They drove away and left it lonely and empty in the clearing among the big trees, and they never saw that little house again. They were going to the Indian country.
Thus begins Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder. It was written in 1935. (Farmer Boy, a book about her husband's childhood was published in 1933. I do plan on reading and reviewing Farmer Boy. I just have a little different reading order I follow.) It's funny--okay, not really ha ha funny--but this is one of those opening paragraphs that I had practically memorized from childhood. It's not that I think it is particularly "awesome" or anything. But something about it struck me as a child. Of course, this opening like the opening to Little House in the Big Woods loses its "trueness" with the flow of time.
By 1935, all of my grandparents had been born--two were even teens or preteens by that point--but this story would have been targeted for them. It was this generation that would have been the first readers. This introduction would have been about getting them to think about their grandparents. It's mind-boggling as a child to think about your grandparents having grandparents. I think age, time, history is so complex that it's hard to wrap your mind around as a child. To think that your grandparents were ever anything but "old" to think of them as being children, of being good and naughty, of going to school, of getting in trouble, of having fears, of having friends and playmates, etc.
Perhaps Little House is one of the reasons I've always loved stories and storytelling. Perhaps not. Perhaps I come from a family of storytellers. My mom can tell stories--and they're such great stories--about her childhood, about her parents, about her grandparents, about her cousins, and most especially about her naughty siblings. To hear my mom talk about her grandparents, it's a wonderful thing. To hear my great-aunt and my grandma talk about their childhoods, their parents, their grandparents, is a wonderful thing. I love family history. I love family stories.
Maybe I'm the only child that read this opening and thought of how deep and mind-boggling it was to trace the generations back and learn and explore and connect. Maybe not.
This book--like Little House in the Big Woods--is so poignant to me. Maybe I'm not using the right word. What I mean is that each chapter, each event, is so much a part of my memory, so familiar, so resonating that it remains sharp and clear even after a dozen years since the last reading. I think the Garth Williams illustrations are part of the reason why. The book is like a collection of snapshots not only of Laura's story but of my own childhood. The Little House books are part of my reading DNA.
The story, very briefly, is about Laura and her family as they travel by covered wagon into new territory. Once they arrive, they try to make this land their new home. There is the house to build, the barn to build, the well to dig, the neighbors to meet, the fields to explore, etc.
The book isn't without faults. I mentioned this very briefly with Little House in the Big Woods. The book has through the past decade or so been challenged in some districts. I'm not sure of the specifics of whether it was school libraries, class curriculum, or public libraries. But it has been challenged enough that it is part of a long list of books that some (perhaps erroneously) refer to as banned books. [In my opinion, a book isn't banned if it is still available to sell. A "banned" book may not appear in one town's library, but if it's still widely available in most libraries across the nation. Still available to buy in stores and online. It's not really "banned."]
As I said, I'm not too sure on the specifics. But if I had to take a guess, I would say that while talk may come and go on this one it's still widely available in school and public libraries. And that it hasn't really ever been out of print as far as I can tell and isn't really in any danger of disappearing. HarperCollins (perhaps foolishly) has just released new editions in 2007. I say foolishly because they have been stripped of the illustrations by Garth Williams. So the real danger is if this trend continues and the illustrations become hard-to-find.
The issue with Little House on the Prairie is that because it is about the conflict between "white settlers" and "Indians" it is more than a little offensive. Ma Ingalls fears that the Indians would massacre them and their neighbors. Her repeated notions (and it's at least a dozen times) that the only good Indian is a dead Indian. It's easy to see how this one might be in danger of being purged "for the good of children everywhere" by the politically correct camp. But Ma's views aren't the only views presented. Laura is more curious than scared. Pa is more cautious and friendly than gung-ho to make an enemy. Pa more often than not voices logic and reason and peace and goodwill to Ma's rants. Pa may be accused of wanting the Indian's land so he could have a nice place to live and raise his family. But Pa wasn't wanting the Indians to be killed.
A few random points.
1) Does Little House on the Prairie say things that out of context could be taken offensively? Yes.
2) However, it is more than important it is essential to always use context when reading.
3) Does Laura Ingalls Wilder authentically represent the majority opinion of the mid-to-late nineteenth century? Yes. Most white settlers felt it was their "right" to settle wherever they wanted.
4) Does Laura Ingalls Wilder authentically and accurately represent the American Indians or Native Americans? No. Her portrayal of the Indian tribes living in the region are generic. They're stereotypical. They're the white man's phony image of what an "Indian" is and says and does. The details about their lives, their appearance, their customs and traditions, not accurate, not authentic.
5) At the time when Laura Ingalls Wilder was writing the series--the 30s--was this stereotype present and alive? Yes. In books. In movies. In tv shows. And most likely in radio shows. The stereotypical "Indian" had many many many reincarnations. This "stereotype" was prevalent and abundant.
Slightly turning topics
1. It seems we have several different options. We can purge the past and pretend that the current notions, ideas, concepts, values have always been the ONLY ones we've ever had. We can try to erase our history completely and pretend that as a nation, a country, we've never had a racist thought, a racist act, a racist law. Or we can examine the past critically and discuss it.
2. Discussion is good. Explanations are good. Bouncing ideas back and forth. Learning from the past. Learning about ourselves. Thinking critically. Being challenged to think at all. Being challenged to question history, question the past. It's all good and much preferable than the alternative: being told, being programmed what to think, how to feel, how to act.
3. It is unfair and ridiculous to hold those living in the past to our twenty-first century values. Our ideas of right and wrong, just and unjust aren't static. They evolve, they change over time. To stand in judgment over the past. To pass judgment. To want to rewrite history. It's not really the brightest idea.
4. When evaluating literature--classics whether for adults or children--we should always be evaluating in terms of context--time and place and culture. If it is historical fiction, it is a snapshot of both the events chronicled (when the story takes places) and a snapshot of when it was written (when the story was written and published.)
Is Little House on the Prairie suitable and appropriate for modern readers? I think that is something parents will have to decide for themselves. Would reading a book--could reading a book--make you a racist? I'd say it's debatable. I think your home life--your parents, your education--that would play a larger role in socialization. But I think discussion will become more and more important through the years. I think--to borrow from a song--that you have to be taught to hate. And I personally don't think Laura Ingalls Wilder is trying to teach anyone to hate.
This is in some ways under the topic umbrella of "does a book make you..." For example, does reading a book about a murderer or rapist, make you as a reader want to go out and commit those crimes? Does reading a book about teenage pregnancy, make you as a teen reader want to go out and get pregnant. Does reading a book about teens doing drugs and drinking and partying make teens want to go out and do the same? I think it's a pointless argument. I don't really think books "make" anyone "do" anything.
One more quick point about book challenges and "banning." I think most people tend to label would-be book banners in one way or another. They forget that they come in all shapes, sizes, religions, cultures and ethnicities, and political affiliations. They forget that they are just as likely to be liberal as conservative, atheist as Christian, etc. These kinds of groups aren't one-size-fits-all-crazy. They're always more complex than that.