[12 March 2014]
Laura Ingalls Wilder had a hard life. Her family was always moving, and they lived in fear of attacks. Bobcats were a threat. Mom and Dad had to build at least one house, from the ground up. Mom badly injured her foot when she dropped a log on it. In those days, people thought you had to put an injured foot in a certain kind of water—which was exactly the wrong kind of water for an injured foot. So Mama Ingalls’s foot swelled and began to resemble a turnip.
That’s not all. For example, Laura’s sister, Mary, lost her sight at an early age. And a major treat for Laura was a trip to a housing wares store—can you imagine? How boring! But, to Laura, who rarely had the opportunity to see anyone other than her nuclear family, a trip to a nails-and-plywood store was like a trip to Disney World.
When Laura became an adult, she wrote down all of her memories of growing up. The book was way too long, and the narrative didn’t really have a shape. So Laura picked just one part, a span of years from her childhood. She retold those few years in great detail, and the second draft became Little House on the Prairie. Several other books followed.
It’s true, as many critics have noted, that Wilder had some outdated and offensive beliefs about Native American men and women. For example, in a first edition of one of the books (an edition whose prejudicial remark was later removed by Wilder and her editor), Wilder wrote that there were no “people” in a certain area; there were “only Indians”.
Still, I wonder: Should the fact of Wilder’s prejudices lead us to abandon Little House and its sequels? Is it enough to say, before reading one of these books in class, “Kids, you’ll encounter some retrograde ideas here; be warned”—-? I’m inclined to say, It’s OK to read Little House with kids, as long as there is a thoughtful prefatory discussion about prejudice.
Dickens was anti-Semitic. The character of Fagin is an ugly cartoon, a venal Jewish thief. And yet it’s possible to read and enjoy Oliver Twist without succumbing to Dickens’s anti-Semitism. (Incidentally, Dickens later changed his tune. He was filled with shame regarding his portrait of Fagin. He tried to compensate by creating a saintly Jewish character in his last finished novel, Our Mutual Friend.)
People still argue about Shakespeare’s prejudices. The man seemed to dislike Jewish people, and his prejudice seemed to seep into his depiction of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. (Or did it? Some people feel the depiction of Shylock is not sufficient evidence for accusing Shakespeare of anti-Semitism.) In any case, sensitive people can read and enjoy blatantly flawed books, books marred by prejudice of another era, without absorbing “the ugly stuff”
When I read Little House in elementary school, I was often bored. Here was what stuck with me. Those people had to salt their meat! They did not have refrigerators. A little salt kept the deer carcass from rotting away before spring time. Also: Good grief! Mary lost her sight! She was just a girl! That moment sent a chill down my ten-year-old spine. If Mary could suffer such a loss, maybe no one was invincible.
In other words, Little House helped me to think about human frailty. When you’re a kid, it’s easy to forget that you are merely human; it’s easy to forget you are here on Earth and perfectly healthy for just a finite period. Wilder reminds you of that fact.
Now I’m an adult, and I teach young children. One of my favorite parts of the day is reading aloud to them. Last year, Little House was a required part of my curriculum, so I found myself reading it again.
However, re-reading Little House to second graders I was, again, often bored. There: I’ve said it. I feel as if I’ve committed sacrilege. The problem was that each character seemed so exceedingly earnest. Where was the juicy subtext? Where was the tart, saucy humor? You won’t find many laughs in a Wilder novel. You need to go to Beverly Cleary for good jokes. Both funny and sad, and plainspoken and profound, Cleary is just a god. There is no other label for her. She is maybe my favorite writer.
Kids respond to quality. It’s evident that Little House is written with care and intelligence. Therefore, I have not yet met a child who absolutely loathes Wilder’s work. That said, there are some kids who really prefer books with a focus on emotions and on the comedy of interpersonal relations. These kids will never be huge fans of Little House, or of other books with man-vs.-nature stories. (My Side of the Mountain and Island of the Blue Dolphins are other man-vs.-nature tales that leap to my mind.) Kids who value humor and psychological insight will likely always be fans of Beverly Cleary, and they’ll tend to be fans of the writers Lois Lowry and Kevin Henkes, as well.)
Despite my reservations, I’m a fan of Little House and its sequels. Here’s why. Wilder was not blessed with a fabulous imagination. She didn’t have a dazzling prose style. She simply lived for several decades, and took some time to write down what happened in her childhood. If she can do it, anyone can. She’s an inspiration.
My dream is to put my own childhood into words, and when I think of Wilder, I am invigorated. Imagine describing the mid-‘80s to today’s little children. In the mid-‘80s, kids had paper routes. Adults read tangible, actual newspapers. That’s as weird to a kid today as a life without refrigerators. One can spin from the story of a 1989 paper route. One can spin from that story a tiny bit of gold.
Wilder wasn’t a perfect writer. Her heart wasn’t boundlessly tolerant, and her prose style sometimes makes me want to snooze. Still, I’m glad she wrote what she wrote, and I hope kids keep reading her books.
There are little Laura Wilders among today’s beginning readers. They need the Little House books to help them realize, “Hey, I like this business of writing sentences. I like storytelling. I’m watching a writer at work, and I’m thinking, whoa…wait a minute. I, too, can do that.”