Picture of the book Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder
books,  history,  homeschooling,  Houseful of Chaos Press,  politics

Little House on the Prairie Books and the Problem of Messy History.

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It is a perennial questions in homeschool circles, whether one should read the Little House on the Prairie books with one’s kids or whether the racism in it makes those books ones that should be put aside. The books have the heroine’s mother saying “The only good Indian is a dead Indian” and one of them has the father engaging in blackface.

I started reading the Little House books with my oldest child sometime before he turned six. I had forgotten about what they contained. We came to one of the first examples of racism in it and he said no way would he listen to the rest of the book or anything else in the series. I finished reading the series to myself at that point, but none of us have picked it up since.

I did read the book Eight Cousins by Louisa May Alcott with my nine year old daughter recently. It was published in 1875 and includes discussion of some Chinese merchants in the city with language I would seriously prefer them not use. Since I was partially into the book at the time, I edited some of the language as I read it aloud. Even so, my children all commented about not liking the way it was. So we discussed the time it was written and the attitudes people had. They are old enough to understand it as a reflection of the American and British Empire attitudes of the time, and not as a reflection on people from China.

I really feel like it is important to teach children to be able to place things on a historical timeline in their mind before we introduce them to problematic literature. They need to be able to think about the context. When was this story relative to the American civil war? When was it relative to Martin Luther King Jr.? We talk about how racism still exists now, but it helps to be able to see the context both with regards to when the story is placed and when the story was written. Until a child can hold in their mind “This story, set in X time, was written Y years ago in Z time” they are probably too young for purposeful exposure to things.

One of the things I find fascinating is that in all the discussion of Little House books, people talk about it being an example of racism in the 1870s – 1890s, and they rarely seem to discuss the fact that the books were written in the 1930s – 1940s and are an example of the social acceptability of racism then too. Laura’s concern when her father did blackface in one of the later books was whether he had cut his beloved mustache off not anything about the inappropriateness of blackface. The author didn’t think “I want kids to still love my mom, so maybe I’ll leave out her favourite saying and tone down her racism a little.”

I stop to think would the Little House books be better without those racist bits? They would for young children, but then we’d still have another book that promotes an idealized view of pioneers settling the nation.

Part of the problem is the specific acts of racism from a beloved character but the other part of the problem is that the whole series idealizes a period of time when people were stealing the land. Would removing the racism simply increase the idealization of that time period?

Another thing I find fascinating about the discussion of Little House books is that people often want to ignore what it means to endorse the books. So many times when homeschoolers talk of studying them, they sound like they are celebrating the pioneer lifestyle at the same time, and I think that mixing the celebration aspect and the “yeah, it was racist then” gets confusing for kids. If kids get the message life was better then even though it was racist, they get the message that racism doesn’t matter. I hate hearing people talk about how much they love sharing Little House books with their kids because it feels like they’re saying the racism and how the book would be felt by a native child doesn’t matter. Yet I know I’m a hypocrite in that there’s other books I’ve read my children that also include racism and misogyny.

I read one article a long time ago that argued the problem with the books is they don’t include enough racism and unhappiness to accurately portray the era. Of course the idea of ‘accurately portraying an era’ is used to justify a lot of sexual violence in television shows. Making entertainment out of the bad parts of a different era is a huge problem. The Little House books are entertainment, and we don’t need kids taking entertainment from racism any more than we need adults taking entertainment from tv shows filled with sexual violence.

My experience has been that a lot of children’s books include bits of misogyny with inappropriate comments about how a girl was brave for a girl or other such nonsense. I haven’t had time to preread everything. The result is my nine year old daughter knows that girls and women were not treated fairly in the past (or even, in different ways, today). In some ways I wish I had not let her realize this, but in many ways discussion around that in children’s books trained her to point out the problems in television shows too – including modern television with things that I accept as sloppy comedic writing and she recognizes are wrong.

We are watching the television series M*A*S*H with the kids. The earliest seasons have a lot of sexual harassments of nurses. My kids all called that out. My husband struggles watching it with us because the kids pause it at least three times per episode to discuss the situations. We have talked a lot about how this was written during the Vietnam War, using the Korean War because they couldn’t criticize the Vietnam War. I think it ok for them to know that the standards of sexual harassment have changed, and was glad when after the first season or so they really tone that down. But, at a certain point, I’m ok with them understanding the different cultures of the past. Let’s not idealize the 1970s.

But, particularly with my oldest being very aware of current news and cultural struggles, it helps to have examples of how we as a society have improved and become less tolerant of certain things. He’ll hear about sexual assault accusations towards politicians. The understanding of how ideas about sexual harassment have changed helps him understand that the current accusations are not because politicians have suddenly gotten more nasty and entitled but because women have been empowered to speak out. #metoo isn’t a sign society has been getting worse but a sign that we’re trying – slowly, painfully, awkwardly – to get better.

Without the understanding of the cultures of the past, we can’t understand today, and the literature of the past is a good way to do that. Not as part of happy days of pretending to be pioneers but as part of painful ongoing conversations and learning to love and understand an imperfect world.

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  • Marie

    Great post! I just wanted to let you know of two errors – than was used instead of then, and ton was used instead of tone.

  • Shad Sterling

    My mom read some of the Little House books to my siblings and I as children. I don’t remember anything as racist from that, probably because I was too young to remember, or to understand. The understanding I remember having as a child probably formed a bit later, and was that native tribes were hated by homesteaders despite being generally decent people. Now I wonder if some of Mom’s teaching us about native people was motivated by noticing things like racism in books she read to us, tho I think for the most part she would have done it anyway.

  • Sara-Anne Peterson

    I would use Canadian books for home schooling reading material. I’ve never read Little House on the Prairie myself and neither have my kids or grandkids and they and I are all readers.

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