Few people are unfamiliar with the Little House on the Prairie book series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Her simple retellings of her childhood memories of life in the big woods of Wisconsin, to the prairie of the Dakota territories, to her life as a married frontier wife have captured the imaginations of generations of readers.
Wilder’s stories of her family’s journey west in a covered wagon, the careful details of the minutiae of their daily lives, and her descriptions of an America most commonly seen in history books should, without question, cement her place in history as a talented and important author. Wilder’s books also have served to introduce children for decades to disability issues, specifically blindness, and are an important look at the positive difference a supportive family can make for people with special needs.
The enduring nature of her work is a testimony to her ability to write, and that talent and ability to capture reader’s minds and hearts led the Associate for Library Service to Children to name a literary award after her in 1952. Now her presence has been stripped from the the award, which has been renamed the Children’s Literature Legacy Award.
Wilder’s removal came after repeated rounds of criticism that her books, written about her girlhood in the 1800s, contained racist and offensive characterizations most commonly of Native Americans. These complaints started in the 50s with a reader writing into Harper, the publisher of Wilder’s books, about sentences that she disagreed with. The publisher responded by rewording sections. These gentle rewordings quelled critiques until more recently, when statutes and school names became battle grounds for removing the presence of people with problematic parts of their history. No longer can Confederate leaders of the past have any public monuments. Their part in the Civil War renders them best forgotten, ripped from places where their names and images could remind people of uncomfortable parts of history. And here is where Wilder’s name and image are now being stripped away.
Her writing about her life, her feelings, and those of her parents and siblings in the 1800s are being judged against the views that people hold today. Fans of Wilder and her work aren’t defending racism. The outcry over removing her name and legacy isn’t one of cheering on racism, but rather one of recognizing the talent and legacy of a female American author.
Wilder’s books capture the breathless American exceptionalism so lacking in current culture. The pioneers were willing to condense all of their possessions into a covered wagon, and set out for places they’d never seen before with their families. They had the tenacity to cut homes from the ground itself, to cross rivers and mountains, to plant towns and communities. All of this they did after saying goodbye to extended families in the east, knowing that they might never see them again. The western landscape of America is what it is today after families just like the Ingalls and Wilders, and discarding this is a loss to everyone.
For many kids, the Little House series is also one of their first introductions into the personal life of someone with a disability. Laura’s older sister Mary goes blind in “By the Shores of Silver Lake.” This fundamentally changes not just Mary’s life, but that of Laura and the whole family. She learns compassion, and takes on her sister’s role, and works hard to save money to help send her sister to a special school so she can succeed as a blind person in the 1800s.
Attending the School for the Blind allowed Mary to learn Braille and how to navigate confidently on her own, and gave her independence. This provides parents an opportunity to talk about the changes in medical care we now enjoy, access to schooling options now versus in the past, and why and how we should treat people with differences. The Little House books help show how far we’ve come, and why this is so important for families and people with disabilities. It’s a shame to lose an opportunity to help kids understand how they should interact with and help others.
Pretending things that make us uncomfortable never happened isn’t going to make America better, or make American children more informed. It’s entirely possible to read the Little House books and talk about the Westward expansion that happened with the settlers, while also discussing the Native American peoples who lived in that area at that time, and what happened to them with the American government and military to pave the way for settlers. Pair reading the Little House books with age appropriate books about Native American children, like “Sing Down the Moon,” a book that chronicles the journey of the Navajo from their homes to Fort Sumner. Read “Sign of the Beaver,” a book that brings together a Native American boy and a settler boy, and shows how much they had to learn from each other. This is a progressive educational failure, and one we should reject strongly for our children.
We’re at a crossroads for how to handle our past. Writers like Wilder shouldn’t be stricken from the record. It will do much more harm than good. A contemporary of Wilder’s, George Santayana described perfectly instead how we need to handle history — “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”