Cultural Sensitivity and Laura Ingalls Wilder

After I wrote about a stranger’s astonishment that my four-year-old daughter understands what I read to her, and the book involved happened to be On the Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder, my mom sent me a link to an article about the recent controversy over whether Wilder’s books are appropriate for today’s children. I really like Roger Sutton’s take on this issue and agree strongly with what he wishes the organization that used to give the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award had said when announcing its renaming: “Yes, there are some great things about the Little House books: their attentiveness to an authentically childlike viewpoint, their simply but evocatively sketched settings, their presentation of history lived.”

Those are all things that earned the first five books of the series their place among the books I’ve valued most both as a child and as an adult reading to my kids. (The later books are just less interesting, in my opinion.)  I love these books also for the vivid descriptions and the way Laura struggles with moral reasoning when overwhelmed by emotion or curiosity.

Twenty-first-century adults worry that Wilder’s books express cultural attitudes that are no longer okay.  I’ve written about her presentation of Indians as frightening “wild men” and what I told Lydia about that.  Sutton makes a good point that kids old enough to read to themselves shouldn’t have this kind of adultsplaining all the time; they should be allowed to access books that are less than perfectly culturally sensitive and to think about them in their own way.  He says we need to “trust” kids–and I agree, based on my own experience.

I was an avid reader on about a fifth-grade level by the time I was in kindergarten in the late 1970s.  Libraries and used-book stores were filled with books from the 1950s and 1960s.  I read a lot of books in which someone expressed a sexist, racist, classist, or otherwise discriminatory attitude, and a lot in which some kind of discrimination was taken for granted. Being raised by a feminist activist mother, in a home where racial and religious discrimination were discussed frequently, I spotted a lot of these things and felt indignant!  Sometimes, when the story continued with nobody objecting to the prejudice, I tossed the book aside in disgust and made up my own version!

If you’re afraid that your kids can’t resist adopting every bias they hear, don’t shelter them from ever hearing of biases–instead, express your inclusive ideas when you’re talking with your kids, and that includes the times when you’re reading to them (or watching with them) a story that includes some questionable attitudes.  My father read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to my brother and me, preceded by an explanation of how this book makes frequent use of a word that my father normally wouldn’t say, but he was going to say it to read the book; this is a very offensive word, but the characters in the time and place they lived didn’t think of it the way we do because they didn’t realize how wrongly they were treating black people.  We talked more about that and other issues that come up in the book (people hung up on the racism often forget about the severe child abuse and juvenile crime!), and I learned a lot about my own feelings as well as getting more perspective about how other people can see things so differently than I do.

A few hours before I read Sutton’s article, I had been reading some more of On the Banks of Plum Creek to Lydia, and we came to one of my favorite parts: the sunny day when Ma and Pa go to town leaving Mary and Laura in charge of their little sister Carrie, and a sudden blizzard blows in, and Mary and Laura panic about making sure to get enough firewood into the house. Carrie, who has seemed quite babyish earlier in the book, shows that she is now big enough to open the door and acts as a helpful sister for the first time.

bringing in firewood

This wonderful illustration by Garth Williams is copyright 1953. The text is copyright 1937 by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Lydia looked a long time at this illustration. First she was interested to see that Carrie is now preschool-aged or nearly so, “Maybe she’s two? Almost three?”  I said, “I noticed how she used to talk in one word, but now she says whole sentences. You did that when you were two.”  Lydia was surprised to see Carrie as a person like herself, a little girl, not a baby.

That cast a new light on Carrie’s surroundings, as Lydia considered how a person like herself lived, then and there [140 years ago on the Minnesota prairie].  The only heat in their house was from burning wood in that stove, which was also for cooking.  We see a lot of wood piled up, but Lydia and I don’t know how fast that wood would go in that kind of stove.  It’s very different from our cooking stove and even more different from our totally separate, automatic furnace.  Carrie is a little girl in an alien world, in a way.

Yet some things are familiar, like the clothes . . . dresses with warm socks . . . Lydia pointed at Mary: “Is she wearing a dupatta?”

I said, “Yes, a shawl is a lot like a dupatta, a big cloth over her head. This warm shawl goes around her head and over her shoulders and back, but her face isn’t covered, so that she can see where she’s going.”  Lydia nodded and asked to hear more of the story.

Wrapping a cloth around your head is a basic type of clothing that a lot of cultures use, now or historically. At church, next time Lydia asks to go look at the stained-glass windows instead of sitting in the pew, I can point out another Mary who wore a cloth around her head.

Why is dupatta the word my Yiddish/Anglo/German-American child uses for a cloth wrapped around the head?  Well, we do see women wearing dupattas in our neighborhood, but most likely, Lydia remembers a picture book we took out of the library a month or two ago, One Green Apple by Eve Bunting, in which a girl who has just moved to the United States narrates her experience of a school field trip, noticing that everyone is wearing jeans and T-shirts like hers but nobody else wears a dupatta.

My ancestors wore woolen shawls; your ancestors wore dupattas–are we really so different?  I’m reminded again of a wonderful slogan Girl Scouts used when I was a girl: “I’m not like anyone else.  We have a lot in common.”  Details vary, but we all wear clothes, we all need to heat and/or cool our homes, we all look for ways to be helpful, like Carrie.  We can be ourselves and appreciate how other people do it a little differently, without judging anyone as doing it wrong.

The more time goes by after the era in which a story is set, the more our lifestyles diverge from the way the people in the story are living.  When I started reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books in 1979, curled in the corner of an upholstered couch under an electric light, wearing nylon tights and twisting shampoo-scented hair around my finger, while Ma made whole-wheat bread in the electric mixer and Pa tinkered with the Apple II computer storing data on audio cassettes . . . Laura’s world was as exotic to me as anything in Pakistan or Paris or Papua New Guinea.  Although I lived only 30 miles from the Little House on the Prairie site, although the Ingalls name appears in my family tree, it’s not at all accurate to say Laura and I are part of the same demographic.  Lydia is another generation removed, chronologically and genealogically, and has lived all her life in a part of the world that was already “civilized” when the Ingalls family was pioneering in the wilderness.

So there’s no reason we should see Laura as “a white American girl like me” and therefore affiliate with every point of view she expresses or every idea suggested to her by bigoted adults.  (Actually, at many points in the books Laura internally questions what the adults are saying; her instinct is to be more open-minded than they are about what is the right way to live.)  She’s not our role model for how to be a white American girl.  She’s one of our many examples of one of the ways to be a person.

I was around 7 years old when I first read Josie on Her Own by Gunilla B. Norris.  The main character is a black girl feeling self-conscious at summer camp with white girls.  Right from the beginning, Josie gets bad vibes from Nancy, who seems stuck-up and is wearing clothes so new you can see the puncture marks from the price tags.  Well, I was white in a mostly-white community, but I often felt self-conscious; I’d often experienced judgment from girls who had newer clothes, so I related to Josie very strongly.  This is just one of many examples of a book that makes it easy for kids to relate to a character on traits other than race.  [UPDATE: Here’s my 21st-century adult perspective on Bright April, a children’s book that was very progressive in 1946 that I’d never read before, and why I decided to wait a few years to share it with Lydia.]

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books are exciting, educational, and well-written, but they’re not perfect–and that’s why we read a variety of books, presenting a variety of perspectives and ways to live.  We don’t need every single book to present a perfectly balanced, politically correct view of everything; we need to put ourselves into the shoes of the white pioneer girl in 1878 and the Pakistani immigrant girl in 2018 and the black inner-city girl in 1968 and some boys and some grownups and a polar bear cub and a hobbit and a robot.  Reading gives us the opportunity to try out other perspectives.  Sometimes it gives us the feeling of being all in this together, and other times we think, “Hey, you’re wrong about that; you just don’t understand–” and we realize more about what we understand.

If you’re looking for a way to give your white child more non-white perspectives, this is my simple tip: Go to the library and get a bag of books.  Make at least 20% of them books whose cover illustrations suggest that the main character is a person of color.  Some of these will be books about race or ethnicity, but many of them will be books about people who just happen to have a different color skin than you do.  You don’t have to talk about their skin color unless your child mentions it.  Just demonstrate that these books are as good a choice as any other books.  You and your child will like some of the books better than others–just like books about white people.  That’s life.

10 thoughts on “Cultural Sensitivity and Laura Ingalls Wilder

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  2. I enjoyed your post. These were my favorite books when I was a child; I must have read them 20 times each. But when I started reading them to my niece last year, I noticed different things. There is no easy answer.

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  4. Thanks for your thoughtful article. Personally I did not read them as a child and when I read them to my 3 boys they were disinterested and went other directions even though we had moved to Sleepy Eye, MN just down the road.

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