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.


Debbie Reese said...

So... do you think you could, without squirming, read LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE aloud to a group of Native children?

Sarah Miller said...

When I last checked, the Garth Williams illustrations were still available -- but only in color. Currently you can only buy a boxed set of LH paperbacks without pictures, but Harper does have plans to re-release an illustrated boxed set. In the meantime, you can still get the individual (colorized) paperbacks with artwork.

After reading a couple biographies, I've come away with the impression that Laura Ingalls Wilder's portrayal of the Osage Indians isn't as awful as some people would have you believe. Many of the events and encounters involving Indians described in the book do coincide with documented history and recollections of other settlers. It seems to me that her descriptions of the Indians' dress and behavior may also have aligned with other pioneers' experiences, but I haven't double-checked my references yet.

Laura was actually too young to remember her time in Indian Territory, and so relied on her family's recollections to recreate that part of her childhood for her books. In light of that, I find it especially interesting that she chose to portray herself as curious and interested in the local Indians rather than frightened and prejudiced like Ma.

All in all, I think it would be nearly impossible for Laura Ingalls Wilder to have portrayed her family's experiences with the Osage in a way that's both accurate and PC. You can only see through one pair of eyes at a time, you know?

Becky said...

Debbie, to answer your question, I probably would feel awfully squirmy. I don't see this one as a *good* candidate for reading aloud to a group of children as a class read.

I think there are many books that still should have a place on the library shelves that wouldn't necessarily make good read-alouds to a class.

I attended a school where Little House in the Big Woods was read aloud, but not Little House on the Prarie.

Then again, when I was a in primary school, we were encouraged to play "Indian" and sing Ten Little Indians while wearing grocery sacks and construction paper feathers. So things have changed a lot since I was a kid.

There were many things that were part of the curriculum then, that looking back would make me squirm if I were to suggest modern teachers.

If--and it's a pretty good-sized if--the book were used as part of the curriculum, I would hope that it would be accompanied by some discussion about the context and the resulting implications. It would definitely need to be balanced out.

Debbie Reese said...

Actually, Becky, the practice you describe, of making "Indian clothes" using grocery bags and construction paper feathers is still around.

Reified, in fact, in Anne Rockwell's popular picture book about Thanksgiving. Not sure if blogger will let me drop in a website but here it is:

If it doesn't work, go to my blog. Find it by searching on "American Indians in Children's Literature." Once there, look on the right side of the page for "Images of Indians" and go there, scroll down, and you'll see the book.

Sarah---"isn't as awful as some people would have you believe"

I disagree. I suppose I'm one of those people who thinks it is disingenuous to portray American Indians as primitive people who would kill a skunk, skin it, puncturing the glands that release it's odor, and immediately put it on as an item of clothing. AND, then to be untouched by the smell. That IS in the book. Imagine... those men were running around naked and came across the skunks. Killed them. Skinned them. Put them on.

Not really, right? As peoples of that area, they would know how to kill a skunk so they wouldn't puncture the glands. They'd know how to tan it. And, being HUMAN, they wouldn't be able to stand the pungent odor of skunks.

You might want to revisit that part of the book, and others, too, and think more carefully about the messages being imparted.

Becky said...


That's good news on the HarperCollins front. I would *love* to have a set of those. Some of my childhood set survives, but a few have no covers. And even at their best, they never matched. Two were ex-library copies. And the rest were paperbacks. And as much as I loved the series, you can imagine their present-day condition.

I haven't really researched the accuracy/inaccuracy of the portrayal of the Indians. I was just naturally suspicious. Especially when the Indians said "How!" I wasn't sure that anything about their dress or their customs could be trusted after that. Laura's impressions of Indians seemed to be that they all ran around naked.

In this case and in other cases where I'm so not an expert, I am going to be suspicious until the details are verified.

I think--and this is all just opinions of the moment--that in cases such as these, Laura's remembrances and the remembrances of other pioneers do need to be taken cautiously. Not rejected, but not taken as certifiable truth. They might have made observations, but they didn't really have the understanding to place those necessarily into the proper context. The truth is that both sides had trouble perceiving the other and understanding the other. Too much was at stake to be logical or objective. I wonder if I'm making any sense at all???

What I'm trying to say is essentially what you said. Laura couldn't put herself in the shoes of a Native. She couldn't *understand* what it felt like to be in their place.

For readers it is important to realize that this is just one side, one perspective, one experience. But that there is a completely different and equally valid story that needs to be considered to balance this one out.

I think the good news is that there are more and more authentic, enjoyable fiction books from the Native perspective that can be used to balance out some of these older favorites.

Becky said...


I had no idea. I thought we'd progressed some through the years. I really wish we had.

I agree about the skunk skins scene. I was reading that and thinking, hmmm...this couldn't be right. It just couldn't.

Debbie Reese said...


Sorry I'm sounding a bit irked on my previous posts.

I'm a tribally enrolled Pueblo Indian woman, born at an Indian Hospital, went to government day school, taught at two boarding schools for Native kids.

Now I'm a professor in American Indian Studies. My research is on the ways that American Indians are portrayed in children's books.

I run a blog on that topic that is used in English, Education, and Library School courses in the US and Canada.

I hope you'll stop in. We have a lot of work to do... To interrupt the cycles of misrepresentation that continue to misinform America's children about who American Indians are.

Becky said...


I'm familiar with your blog. I visited earlier this morning in fact. And I plan to follow it in the future. I think it's a great resource.

I don't think you're coming across as "irked." I think you're passionate about the issue. And that's not a bad thing.

I'm trying to reconcile a strong love from when I was a child with the problems I see as an adult reader. And I'm not coming up with a quick solution.

So far, I think discussion is the first step. I think perhaps that placing these books in the older age bracket where discussion and higher critical thinking skills are more doable or accessible may be an important step as well.

By no means do I think the books should be accepted at face value as gospel.

I think Laura Ingalls Wilder was human. And in that time and place and in that context her views, her values were the norm and they were accepted as suitable reading material for young children.

I think one of the issues is that because these books are considered to be so "beloved" by some or by's hard to really be critical and objective and firm.

In my opinion, and feel free to disagree and call me on it if you like, there are good things about the series. It may not be "good" in terms of representing American Indians. But if you take away a dozen or so phrases, a few scenes, in my opinion there are plenty of good qualities left when evaluating the series as a whole. The series isn't perfect, it isn't flawless. If there can be a way to salvage the whole by discussion, by balancing it out in some way, then it would be better to do that than to just say the whole series is junk. Throwing the baby out with the bathwater mindset.

Sarah Miller said...

" I suppose I'm one of those people who thinks it is disingenuous to portray American Indians as primitive people who would kill a skunk, skin it, puncturing the glands that release it's odor, and immediately put it on as an item of clothing. AND, then to be untouched by the smell. That IS in the book. Imagine... those men were running around naked and came across the skunks. Killed them. Skinned them. Put them on."

I admit, your description shocked me for a moment. I had no recollection of the Indians' clothing being described to that extent, and I further couldn't believe that in reading the book three times over the years I could have glossed over such a scene without retaining it. In fact, everything you describe is not in the book. Yes, the skunk skins are definitely there, but Wilder's description of them isn't nearly as graphic or barbaric as you detailed:

"Around their waists each of the indians wore a leather thong, and the furry skin of a small animal hung down in front. The fur was striped black and white, and now Laura knew what made that smell. The skins were fresh skunk skins."

I understand the point you're making about the implications of Wilder's writing in this passage, but as a reader - even as a child being read to - I never interpreted Wilder's description to mean that the Ingalls's Osage visitors were wearing freshly slaughtered and/or messily crafted skunk hides. It further never dawned on me to imagine the men had been running naked across the plains until they came upon some skunks. On the contrary, I presumed the skins were tanned yet retained some of their odor.

That said, I have to concede that it's possible for a reader to interpret that passage in the way you describe, and the idea does indeed make me uncomfortable as well.

I suspect I'm coming off as rather argumentative, but I really do sympathize with your point of view. I'll be among the first to stand up and insist that historical people and cultures should be portrayed accurately in fiction. However, I'm struggling between two separate issues of authenticity in this case: the Osage culture vs. the Ingalls's view of that culture. The fact that the Little House books are a combination of fiction and memoir further muddies the problem.

Becky has a point that pioneer and settler recollections don't necessarily present reliable views of Native American culture. However, those recollections do represent another sort of authenticity -- the authenticity of the pioneer experience.

I think my feelings on the matter boil down to this question: is Wilder's portrayal of the Osage faulty because she was a pioneer who didn't manage to see beyond the views of her era, or because she chose to fall back on generic stereotypes to create her Indian characters? Of course neither is ideal, but to me one seems more...well, not acceptable, but at least a little more palatable and understandable, given the circumstances of her life.

In my opinion, Little House on the Prairie could still be read to children today, though not without bringing up the issues we're discussing here.

Even though I'm tussling with you a bit, Debbie, I do appreciate your thoughts on the matter. You've given me some things to think about.

Sarah Miller said...

Hey, let's just throw this into the mix: many people are familiar with the Native American issues in Wilder's books, but I was surprised on my last reading of the series this fall to discover a long scene in Little Town on the Prairie in which Pa takes part in a minstrel show. The men in the show wear blackface and are referred to as "darkies." Of course this is blatantly un-PC nowadays, but I find it interesting that I'd never seen or heard anyone raise an objection to that scene. Most people aren't even aware it's in there at all. Why do you suppose that is?

Paige Y. said...

All of you are making very valid arguments. I too loved the Little House books as a child but I can honestly say that even in the 1970’s when I first read the books, I knew the depiction of the Native Americans was not unbiased. It was Laura’s viewpoint as a pioneer child. It was Ma’s fears (“The only good Indian is a dead Indian”) that clued me in because obviously that statement wasn’t correct so there had to be other inaccuracies. I think that sometimes we don’t give our children credit for seeing obvious prejudices. I do know that when I read Little House on the Prairie to my youngest daughter, we discussed some of the issues to make sure that she understood the biases.

The scene in Little Town where Pa and his friends dress as “darkies” is also an interesting one. I personally don’t think it was meant to be a racially prejudiced thing to do (it evidently was quite a common type of minstrel show -- there’s a scene in the famous movie Holiday Inn where Bing Crosby and his female lead do the same thing, but I digress). Would I be comfortable reading it out loud to a group of African-American children? Probably not, but I’m not sure that I would read aloud any of the Little House books in school today, except perhaps Little House in the Big Woods. There are just too many quality books for kids to read -- I say expose them to the first book and let them decide whether or not to read the others on their own.

Deb Reese’s blog has helped me understand some of the inaccuracies about Native Americans that are found in children’s literature. I appreciate her viewpoint and like knowing about literature that does contain accurate Native characters. That said, I’m not willing to give up the Little House books. Yes, they are flawed but there is much good in them and I think that, with guidance, children can appreciate them for many years to come.

Framed said...

What an interesting discussion. I've owned a full set of these books for years but have only read "Prairie" and that was years ago. It definitely sounds like these books should be closely discussed any time they are part of a curriculum to compare the prejudices of that era and what we can learn from that.

Anonymous said...

This is America. Did you forget that we have FREEDOM here!! This Indian discussion is pretty ridiculuous. We use this book to read to our children. We(the parents) TEACH them how to treat people with kindness no matter what color they are.
I am not for banning books. We are not living in Communist Russia.
American MOM

Becky said...

I think if you read my post, then you wouldn't be angry at Me. In case you didn't notice, I'm not for "banning" or "censoring" any book. That's all I have to say about that.

Debbie Reese said...


American MOM is challenging me, not you. She came over to my blog and posted there, too.

Becky said...

I suspected as much. I'm all for valid discussion and debate but in a polite way.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading through the discussion on Little House on the Prairie vis-a-vis its depictions of Native Americans. I came across it because I did a google search for "Osage skunk" because I'm working on a paper on the novel's depictions of Native Americans and wanted to see if there's anything out there on why the Osage men would be wearing skunk skins etc. I read an article by Sharon Smulders where she reads that detail as emphasizing the men's wild sexuality (the skins covering their loins and all), but I wasn't satisfied by that and thought that maybe they wore those skins to signal that their intentions were peaceful, because it would be impossible to sneak up on someone while wearing potent smelling skunk skins.

Anyway, I just wanted to say that I love the novel (and Little House in the Big Woods) and am so thankful that I finally overcame my male prejudice against girl's books in general and Laura's in particular when in my 30s.

As a white male, it might be too easy for me to say this (even though this sentence will be too hard to write and read), but when you take into account...

the era in which Little House on the Prairie is set (1870s) and the era in which it was published (1930s) ...

and when you take into account the range of views of Native Americans in the novel, from "the only good Indian is a dead Indian' expressed by the Scotts (and at least partly rendered very suspect by Mrs. Scott's ignorant idea that watermelons cause malaria and Mr. Scott's foolish ignoring of Pa's warnings to be careful when digging the well), to "live and let live" expressed by Pa and the "I want to be an Indian" and "I want that Indian baby" views of Laura (enhanced by her moment of deep eye contact with the "papoose" and deep sobs at losing the baby, the only time in the novel she loses her self-control to that extent), and even Ma's feeling "let down" after the Osage have departed, the only time in the novel when she cannot eat or work...

when you also take into account Laura's persistent questioning of her parents' presence in Indian Territory that so upsets her Ma and even her usually tolerant Pa...

and when you compare Wilder's depiction of Native Americans with that of works of popular culture contemporary with hers like The Matchlock Gun or Stagecoach or even Caddie Woodlawn...

when you take into account all of the above, you can see, I believe, that Wilder's depiction of Native Americans is not as negative or simply stereotypical as it could be. I get the impression that she was trying to write her book in a balanced way, given her era and desire to depict her Pa in a good light...

ANYWAY, I agree with the people in this discussion who say that the book should be read to children and recommended to them to read etc., but done so with plenty of discussion and explanation and also maybe in conjunction with reading Louise Erdrich's wonderful The Birchbark House and The Game of Silence, which depict the world through the eyes of an Ojibwe girl, including her sometimes critical though never hateful views of white people.

Debbie Reese said...


The phrase "the only good Indian is a dead Indian" is in the book three times.

Can you imagine yourself reading that phrase aloud to my daughter---a Pueblo Indian child? Or, can you imagine yourself going into a classroom of 3rd graders in Oklahoma, a classroom with many Osage children, and reading that phrase aloud to them?

Imagine it this way... a German woman who hates Jews saying that Hitler was right to kill them? Can you imagine reading that woman's words aloud to a Jewish child?

I think books with such hurtful language SHOULD be read and discussed, but I'm not sure that an elementary school is the place for it.

Those conflicts must be taught, but not (in my view) in an elementary school classroom.

Anonymous said...

Ah, Debbie, you are probably right about not using them in elementary school settings, especially not with Osage children or Native American kids like your daughter. Not having kids of my own and not teaching or working with kids, I defer to those of you who are parents and or teachers and or librarians in this matter.

I don't know at what age children could handle discussions about the parts of America's history that are so painful and awful, like Indian Removal (what a horrible euphemism)... But at some point I guess that children should be told about those things, about how many Americans thought in the 19th century ignorant and hateful things like "the only good Indian is a dead Indian" or "kill the Indian, save the man." And books like Little House on the Prairie could be avenues into teaching kids about such things. It could be pointed out to children, for example, that Laura's neighbors say things like what the Scotts say, but that Laura's Ma doesn't go that far (though she does speak of Indians as vermin "underfoot") and that ultimately the novel as a whole debunks the Scotts' awful belief.

I suppose it depends on at what age such unpleasant and painful historical matters should be introduced to children...

In my case, I teach American literature at a university in Japan, and I use works of children's literature because it's easier for my students to read than adult literature and I just like them. I have used Little House in the Big Woods and Little House on the Prairie many times, and have begun using Louise Erdrich's The Birchbark House and The Game of Silence with Wilder's books, to balance the former with a Native American perspective and also with a contemporary author's work. I use such books for their great characters, stories, and writing and for their historical details, cultural meaning, and themes. At the same time I want to teach great literature to my students, I also want them to learn the good and bad parts of American history and culture, and I think that Little House on the Prairie is a good text for achieving those goals.

I have used twice for similar reasons Walter Edmonds' The Matchlock Gun (1941), a Newbery Medal winner, but decided not to use it again because I don't think it's as well-written or as rich or popular as Wilder's books and because it is too disturbing to me in its depiction of "French Indians" (who don't even get called by their tribal name and are not described in any detail other than to be compared to hungry dogs). In the climax of the story, the boy Edward saves the lives of his mother, sister, and self by firing the family's giant matchlock gun (that his mother has filled with bullets, nails, brass buttons, and pebbles) and so killing three Indians and crippling a fourth (who is later summarily killed by militia men), and at the end Edward is applauded by his father and the reader is sure not meant to sympathize with any of the Indian raiders or to wonder why they would be attacking colonists.

Compared to books and movies like that, Laura's book seems more culturally aware or fair, flawed though it is by Laura's time and place and desire to depict her Pa in a good light.

Dana said...

I just wanted to say I loved this discussion and how polite everyone was in their varying, challenging, and agreeing views! So often I am discourages by blogs that dont share this idea. Also I have another blog and books to check out! I read (in school aloud) LHITBW but not LHONTP now I know why. However, I think that age is probably the earliest youd want to introduce and discuss these issues. Just a personal opinion for myself. This is when I learned about those issues and feel confident I understood and respected it in regards to literture and historical era. I think while not my first pick, and definitely uncomfortably, with discussion first it could be shared aloud. Again my own opinion. Thanks for the wonderful discussion!

Dana said...

I didnt mention the age I read LHITBW in school which was 3rd grade and books more similar with Native American life in school in 4th grade not aloud but in school.