A review of reading Little House on the Prairie with my daughters: Yikes.

One of my first elementary school teachers, Mrs. Mary Lindell Thomas, was a friend of my mom and dad. Her daughter had been good friends with my sister in high school, and she'd been an orbiting figure in my life for as long as I could remember. In the way of teachers with small children, she'd always been kind and engaging with me, and I was excited to have her for first grade.

Ms. Thomas noticed that I had an affinity for reading and writing. She encouraged me to read my stories to the class - and I was delighted when people laughed at the parts I meant to be funny or felt sad when I wanted them to. She also was the first to tell that I should venture into the chapter book section of the little library we'd visit once a week.

Our class would line up, trek across the field separating Pollocksville Elementary from Pollocksville Public Library - dodging fire ant mounds and swatting at mosquitoes until we arrived - slightly smelly, sticky, and ready to read. Occasionally the librarian would read a story to us or have us complete some literary-themed activity, or we'd go up the stairs and take turns playing Oregon Trail or Frogger on the 2 computers. (This might have been my first experience with a computer as well. Ms. Thomas was quite the influencer in my life.)

The whole experience was pretty special - and when Ms. Thomas invited me to check out the chapter books that stood on the tall shelves - adjacent to the rotating stand of romance novels with moderately salacious covers that we all avoided looking at directly but consumed thirstily from the corners of our eyes - I felt deliciously adult. I discovered the serial books like Nancy Drew, The Babysitters' Club, and all the Sweet Valley collections. I read some young adult classics and attempted Little Women a few times, but I didn't finish that one until I was older.

My absolute favorite series, though, was Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books. I started with Little House on the Prairie because I recognized the name from the TV show that I'd watched with my sister - and I devoured it. I was charmed by her detailed descriptions of everyday pioneer life, and my mom ordered me my own set of the whole Little House series, which I read (and reread) cover-to-cover.

I was swept up in the mystique of the pioneer story, and when I'd play, I imagined myself riding in the back of a covered wagon with my family, heading into the unknown. I wept when Laura believed her dog had been killed in a harrowing river crossing, and felt her sheer delight at her reunion with him. I was afraid of Laura and her family being attacked by wolves and panthers, and felt grateful for my modern conveniences and cozy home. I wanted to learn to make quilts (and took up my life-long hobby of crocheting around the same time because it felt like something Laura might do) - I wanted to be brave and adventurous - to be ready to defend my family against anything. I wanted to eat candy made from maple syrup tapped right out of a tree and frozen in the snow. I played in the edges of the forest that surrounded my family home, imagining myself as a prairie forager when I'd come across a blackberry bush growing wild, and pretending to cook over a fire or take care of the animals that lived alongside me.

As a mother, one of my favorite times of day is the evening, when my girls and I lie down on my bed, and we read a book together before we move into their room, where I pat and coax them to sleep. One girl lies on each side of me, snuggled close, and we read together.  For the last year or so, they've been old enough to follow the plot of chapter books, and my oldest girl is reading some on her own. This transition has been so special to me - and watching my little girl get lost in her favorite books takes me back to my childhood. I ordered a copy of Little House on the Prairie for us to read together, and I was excited to share these sweet memories with my girls - eager to see how they'd respond to the details Wilder includes of her lifestyle and how different it is from my girls' tech-powered, suburban lives.

I was unaware to the controversy in recent years that resulted in Wilder's name being removed from a prominent award for children's literature because of the racism that's built into the story. I'd not read these books since I was about 8 years old, and 8-year-old me in the 1980s in the deep south was absolutely oblivious to the thread of genocidal racism tying the story together.

From the beginning, when Laura first describes why she's excited for her family to go west, it's so she can "see a papoose." Reading that line with my girls was a little cringey, but when Ma responds, "Mercy on us! ... Whatever makes you want to see Indians? We will see enough of them. More than we want to." My older daughter asked, "Why doesn't Ma like Indians?"

This scene started us on a very different journey than what I'd imagined we were having while reading this sweet book from my childhood. We spent much of it talking about racism - colonialism - and I had to do a little research to figure out exactly where the family was and on whose land were they building their log house.

When they said they were going to "Indian country," they were breaking agreements with the federal government and the Osage people. They were part of an illegal rush of settlers into Osage territory, but the U.S. government was still reeling from the Civil War, and didn't have resources available at the ready to enforce their agreements with the Osage. Pa talks about having "word from a man in Washington" that the white settlers won't be forced to move, and he stakes his claim and starts building a life a few miles into an area where he wasn't supposed to be.

The up-close interactions that Laura's family have with the Osage take place because the Ingalls have entered the Osage's rightful territory. When the Osage come into their home and take their things, it's a way of reclaiming what they're owed after having been promised that this land wouldn't be settled - it's rent. Some of this is in the text directly - but a lot of it isn't, and it's easy to imagine myself reading it 30 years ago and feeling empathy for the little white girl who I'd put on a pedestal and pretended to be and feeling fear or resentment of the "other."

There's a moment when Laura attempts to challenge her father's argument about white people's right to colonize these areas that made my daughters' eyes grow large:
"When white settlers come into a country, the Indians have to move on. The government is going to move these Indians farther west, any time now. That's why we're here, Laura. White people are going to settle all this country, and we get the best land because we get here first and take our pick. Now do you understand?" 
"Yes, Pa," Laura said. "But, Pa, I thought this was Indian Territory. Won't it make the Indians mad to have to-" 
"No more questions, Laura," Pa said firmly. "Go to sleep." 
I wonder if children of color who were my peers read this story, and if they did, how did they feel? Were they more aware - or harmed by - the language in the story? I am ashamed of my own lack of critique - and I know I was a child, but I was still a human being capable of empathy, who completely missed the actual, genocidal racism taking place in the story I loved. I was devastated when they thought the dog was dead, but unmoved when a neighbor said (repeatedly)  that the "only good Indian is a dead Indian." I remember my shock when Pa - after finally sowing their spring seeds and getting the family ready to have their own vegetables - hears that soldiers are coming to clear the white settlers out of the territory - feeling that it was unfair for Laura to have to leave her home. I didn't remember anything about the long parade of Osage people leaving their homes except for the delight Laura describes in seeing all their beautiful ponies.

I can't change who I was when I was a child, but I am proud of my girls for calling bullshit throughout the story. My girls aren't taking this story in uncritically. They say that racism isn't right, and they ask me questions about why Laura's neighbors say the vile things they do. We've had conversations about the norms that made Laura's family and neighbors think their behavior was appropriate, and conversations about why it's never, ever ok to believe that someone isn't valuable because of the color of their skin or because they live differently from you - how it is wrong to take things from people because you believe you're better than them - how the depictions of the Osage people as violent and wild are unfair and biased.

My girls were able to be amazed that Pa and Ma built their house by hand, that Ma cooked their food over an open fire, that they dug a well to get their water and walked together to find berries in the edges of the forest. They were able to enjoy the parts of the books I remember as being so informative to my childhood and providing color to the history classes I'd take as an older child - but they had some critical conversations about biases, whiteness, and what that means for them, today. We've had conversations about what's happening at the border right now and how some people believe that people with brown skin, even today, are less valuable than people with white skin - and how that's not how we feel in our family.

I don't know if we'll make it through the rest of the series. I definitely need a break from the heavy stuff for awhile before we start again. I've learned from talking about this experience with other parents that it isn't uncommon - that moms have had to put down Nancy Drew for being gross with gender stereotypes - and I'm wondering if I should look more carefully at what my girls are reading, or if I can count on them as burgeoning, critical readers to interrogate themselves and the text for what doesn't sit right in their hearts. I think I can - and I am so, so proud of them and optimistic about who they will become.

Comments

  1. Great, insightful observations and perspective, as well as how you handled it and then articulated your experience and reflections to us. Wise as always. ❤ Thank you for sharing!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Great, insightful observations and perspective, as well as how you handled it and then articulated your experience and reflections to us. Wise as always. ❤ Thank you for sharing!

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment

Popular Posts