Thursday, July 5, 2018

Little Bigot on the Prairie?

Laura Ingalls Wilder

The complexities of Laura Ingalls Wilder

Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author of eight novels – published between 1932 and 1943 – about pioneer life in the American west, was the first recipient of a major children’s book award (which bestowed on her the additional honour of bearing her name): the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal.  On June 23, the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) voted unanimously to strip her name from the award, stating that Wilder “includes expressions of stereotypical attitudes inconsistent with ALSC’s values”.

My response – an uneasy sense of loss – is partly, but only partly, due to the role Wilder’s novels played in my own life.  As the less compliant little sister, I cheered Laura with her irritability and impatience, alongside the great love she had for the sister who seemed to outshine her.  As a child in a close-knit, volatile and angry family, I marvelled at the decency and respect the Ingalls family showed one another; the subsequent revelations of the father’s drinking, the family’s night-time escape to avoid debt collectors, and Laura’s exposure to fellow travellers’ domestic violence in Wilder’s more gritty memoir Pioneer Girl, written in 1930 but published for the first time in 2015, do nothing to diminish my pleasure in the family’s fictional portrayal.

The vote to strip Wilder’s name from the medal – in short to degrade her reputation – was based on her negative depictions of Native Americans.  This stunned me, because my memories were of nuanced narratives involving the intersection of Native Americans and the Ingalls’ haphazard homestead claims.  Long before the Thanksgiving story of Native American generosity was exposed as a front for the true story of their exploitation by white people, Wilder, as I remembered her, showed a disturbing tension between the restless settlers, the land and the land’s rightful inhabitants. I remembered the debate within Wilder’s novels about the reasonableness of the view, spoken by a few characters, and repeated as justification for the ALSC vote, that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian”.  I remembered the individuality of the First Nation people she depicts, some generous, dignified and friendly, others not.  I remembered their gleaming, stately difference, as well as their plight.  I remembered the father’s good-humoured acceptance when the family abandoned their newly built home and freshly planted fields in response to a government decree that the land they had settled on was indeed “Indian Territory”.

Going back to check my memories (had they been overlaid with a subsequent understanding of systematic displacement?), I found rich confirmation of them; and, reacquainted with the narrative, I saw new complexity.  In the second book in the series, Little House on the Prairie, the family realize that they have built their new home directly on a path used by Native Americans who ride by “close to the house . . . as though it were not there”. The father, “Pa”, refers to this path as a “highroad”, granting it official, rightful status, and reflects that had he known it was still used, he would not have built the house so close to it.

Wilder’s descriptions of Native Americans are imbued with wonder and awe: these men were “thin and brown and bare . . . They sat straight up in their naked ponies and did not look right or left. But their black eyes glittered . . . The Indians’ faces were like the red-brown wood that Pa carved to make a bracket for Ma”.  When one enters the house and greets Pa, Laura and Mary cannot take their eyes off the man sitting “so still that the beautiful eagle-feathers in his scalplock didn’t stir”.  When he leaves, Pa notes his superior intelligence: “that was French he spoke. I wish I had picked up some of that lingo”.  While Ma declares that “Indians” should keep to themselves, Pa tells her there is nothing to worry about so long as “we treat them well”.  The following day, when one man, passing on horseback, aims his rifle at the family dog, Jack, Pa says, “Well, it’s his path.  An Indian trail, long before we came”.

Pa knew. He can articulate his knowledge of the Native Americans’ prior right and use it to understand their behaviour.   But when he explains matters to Laura, he adopts the bland, unreflecting voice of privilege: “When white settlers come into a country, the Indians have to move on”. Laura is confused by the brutality of this displacement and protests, “But, Pa, I thought this was Indian Territory.  Won’t it make the Indians mad to have to –” and her father silences her: “No more questions, Laura”, he insists. “Go to sleep.”

Here Wilder depicts an age-old dynamic where a child speaks truth to an adult who insists that speaking such truth is not allowed.  This is the all-too-common process of silencing a child’s grasp of natural justice, thereby disturbing the route from observation and empathy to understanding.  It is also the process of instilling self-doubt and self-distrust in a child as she is told her views lack authority – a process repeated over and over in unequal societies, a process as old as the oldest myths, as the psychologist Carol Gilligan notes in The Birth of Pleasure (2002). Wilder portrays the subtle underpinnings of bias – a very different thing from endorsing bias.

Support for the degradation of Wilder’s reputation is also reported to have come from the pairing of two sentences explaining the father’s wish to go west “where there were no people.  Only Indians lived there”.  No reading of these sentences can exonerate their chilling implication, and Wilder herself apologized profusely, amending the text in 1953 to “where there were no settlers. Only Indians lived there”.  Read in context, however, the initial bias revealed is not the stark assumption that “Indians are not people”.  

The “people” Pa wants to escape are the people who frighten away the animals: “Pa . . . liked a country where the wild animals lived without being afraid”. Nor does the father like hearing “the thud of an axe which was not [his] axe, or the echo of a shot that did not come from his gun”.  Wilder emphasizes the silence of Native Americans: “He stood in the doorway, looking at them, and they had not heard a sound”.

Supporters of the ALSC’s decision also contend that Wilder’s books have caused children pain.  The New York Times quotes Dr Debbie Reese, a scholar of children’s literature, who notes that an argument such as mine – that the books can be used “to explain racism to white people” – leaves out of account the responses of Native American children “who have to bear with the moment when they’re being denigrated for the benefit of the white kids”.

No child’s discomfort should be dismissed. Bias hurts.  Even when we know someone’s judgement of us is not merely wrong but twisted and unjust, we respond, sometimes with anger, sometimes with self-doubt, sometimes with aggrieved resignation; but the ideal of not caring what someone else thinks is rarely met.  Trying to avoid every last show of bias, however, is not the best route to managing it, and teaching children how to manage bias would provide an important skill that cannot be provided by trying (no doubt unsuccessfully) to obliterate it from their environment.

It is now commonly accepted that bias may not be overt, that even when we vehemently and sincerely repudiate it, it emerges in the assumptions we make of others and in the language we use. 

By degrading Wilder’s reputation on the grounds that bias sometimes emerges in her writing, we promote the pretence that we can excise all bias from our hearts and minds. A far more illuminating approach is to see that even the writers and artists we love sometimes express the biases that continue to infect us, too.  We are better prepared to catch sight of bias within ourselves, and in other good people, if we admit that everyone is vulnerable to carelessness, injustice and stereotyping. Condemning every instance of bias risks burying our own biases further and masking them with self-righteous condemnation.

Finally, crude policing of “phrases that are unacceptable today” may drive out subtlety; for example, while highlighting Wilder’s exoticizing and seemingly racist descriptions of Native Americans (they are “bold and fierce and terrible”), her critics leave out Laura’s fascinated engagement; while they focus on remarks made by some characters in the novels who believe that “the land belongs to folk that’ll farm it”, they obscure Wilder’s protest (expressed by Laura, “But, Pa, I thought you said this was Indian territory”) at the injustice.  In short, a march towards zero tolerance stamps out the complexities in Wilder’s still fresh and vibrant novels.



Terri Apter is a psychologist and writer. Her new book, Passing Judgment: Praise and blame in everyday life, was published in January.

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