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The ALA has its Pantalets in a Twist

Let's just skip straight to full-on Fahrenheit-451. Every book will offend someone. Let's just burn them all.

We just arrived home from our 30th wedding anniversary trip. We both enjoy baseball and history, and so Bob planned various stops with plenty of both over 2,800 miles from Dallas to Fargo, ND. Along the way, we saw all the places Laura Ingalls Wilder ever lived. We spent the better part of a week steeped in Laura lore, and I loved every minute of it.

This morning, I saw the news that The American Library Association is removing Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name from its children’s book award because one of her characters expressed bigotry.

I’ve written posts about the Little House books in the past, and felt the need to weigh in again.

The ALA has its pantalets in a twist.

In the Little House books, Laura’s mother and father had different attitudes and fears. Her father, Charles, was an optimist who seldom worried and had faith that everything would turn out for the best. Her mother, Caroline, who, unlike Charles, had seen hardship, tragedy, and want as a young child, felt the fear that comes with the responsibility of caring for young children with no support system and tenuous access to food and other supplies.

You probably can’t imagine it. But I bet there are plenty of people, all over the world, who can.

What would you do?

You are left alone for hours, sometimes days, in a remote location with three young children. You have no cell phone, no support system, and limited food and supplies. You know there have been home invasions and robberies in your neighborhood.

Your partner, to whose judgment you must defer, instructs you to let those strangers have whatever they want. If they want food, you must cook it for them. If they want your family’s possessions, you must hand them over.

You must not turn the dog loose to protect you and the children because it could start even bigger trouble. Go along, get along, and you’ll be fine, your partner says.

But what if the home invasions grow so frequent that your partner decides it’s best to lock up what’s left of your food to keep your own family from going hungry? What if the best place to hide the key was inside your clothing? Would you be nervous and afraid as you dreaded some hungry home invader finding the key?

Would your fear and stress communicate itself to your children? You betcha.

Caroline Ingalls felt terrorized in her terrible situation, just as the individuals who invaded her space and stole from her family were also terrorized in their terrible situation. They were being forced off their land, losing their ancestral homes, and destined for more conflict as refugees in a strange land.

There were no winners.

Rather than vilify Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books, let’s open up a dialogue. How does Ma’s attitude and fear compare to what’s going on in our world right now? Take it in context.

I’m constantly amazed by the myriad ways humans manage to hurt each other, but I’m hardly ever surprised. If we shelter our kids from stories like Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books, which give us the opportunity to discuss difficult topics, we rob them of the opportunity to understand, empathize, and someday, hopefully, make the world a better place.

What follows is a rather lengthy excerpt from Little Town in the Ozarks by Roger Lea MacBride, (1996), one of a series of books based on Laura’s daughter Rose’s childhood. This anecdote was taken from Rose’s recollections and the papers she left with her heir, Roger Lea MacBride.

I share this vignette so we can see how the adult Laura remembered and processed the situation that terrorized her and her family. Did it make her more compassionate? You decide:

Rose and her parents attend a debate in town.

“I haven’t heard yet,” said Mama. What is the topic for discussion?”

“Oh, a very good topic, one that is guaranteed to stir folks up. Resolved: Who has been more cruelly treated, the Negro or the Indian. What is your opinion?” asked Mrs. Rippee.

“I don’t know,” said Mama. “The question never came to my mind, but I think it is a hard one to answer.”

Mrs. Rippee answered, “That is the feature of a debate that makes it most interesting. The question is always unanswerable.”

Mr. Loftin and Mr. Waters, captains of the two teams, stepped up onto the stage. Then they began to pick two other people for each of their teams. Rose gasped when Mr. Waters said, “I’ll have Almanzo Wilder. He’s the smartest horse trader I know.”

Everyone laughed. Papa looked at Mama with such a look of puzzlement that Rose burst out laughing too. Papa was never befuddled by anything.

He glanced around shyly and slowly stood up. He coughed once. “I thank you for the honor, Waters. But it will be better if you ask somebody else. You folks all know a good horse trader lets the horse speak for itself.”

Everyone laughed again. Mama tried to hide her smile behind her hand.

Papa began to sit down, but suddenly he called out, “If you like, I can suggest a name.”

“Sure enough,” Mr. Water said.

“I reckon a fine orator on the subject would be a body who’s at least known some Indians.”
Papa shot a sidelong glance at Mama. “Now Mrs. Wilder grew up in Indian Territory, and there’s no subject she doesn’t hold a strong opinion on.”

“Manly Wilder!” Mama growled.

All those eyes were looking at Mama and Papa. Rose felt a wave of hot blood wash up her neck and onto her cheeks.

“There aren’t any rules on it,” Mr. Waters said, “but well, we never had a lady in a debate before.”

Papa grinned and looked around the room. “I don’t have to tell you fellows, when it comes to arguing, there’s not a woman alive who can’t hold her own.”

The room filled with hearty laughter.

“And I’m here to say you won’t catch Mrs. Wilder without a last word or two. You will have to hurry to get ahead of her in any debate. I’ve been trying for twelve years, and I ain’t won one yet!”

That brought the biggest laugh.

Now mama was tugging at Papa’s jacket to get him to sit down. “No, no, I couldn’t! Not in front of all these people. Land sakes, Manly, do sit down!”

But Papa wouldn’t sit. “It’s all in good fun, Bess. Be a good sport about it.”

Mr. Waters asked, “Mrs. Wilder, will you favor us with your expert knowledge?”

The two teams left the room to choose who would speak for them. Finally the teams came back and filed onto the platform. Mr. Loftin’s team went first.

“I will speak for the Negro,” Mr. Loftin said. “We all know about the sorrow of slavery, and the tragedy it brought upon our country. But what do we know of the black man’s suffering, how he was torn from his homeland by force, made to cross the treacherous ocean in irons, often separated from his family, and then bought and sold like livestock?”

For the first time, Rose learned of the terrible history of how Negroes were treated as beasts of burden, made to do the most hateful work for nothing more than the barest food to eat.

“The white man will bear the shame of slavery until the end of time,” Mr. Loftin said. Rose remembered the colored-only waiting room at the depot. It was small and had no door, but the whites-only waiting room was big, and had a heating stove, and a door. She wondered how it could be that Mr. Loftin could argue for the cruelty of the white man against the Negro and not work to end the Negro’s suffering.

Finally he said, “And therefore, I believe it is beyond arguing that the Negro has been treated more cruelly than the Indian.”

The audience applauded long and loud, and then it was the turn of Mr. Waters’ team.

“Being as how we men have had no experience with Indians, and Mrs. Wilder has been a teacher to boot, we have decided to let her speak for us,” he said.

“That’s my Bess,” Papa called out proudly.

Mama stepped to the center of the stage and began to speak.

“It is a very difficult matter to measure cruelty,” she said. “It is nearly an act of cruelty to try to do it, as if one race could be said to be more fortunate than another simply because it has suffered a bit less misery and sorrow.

“But I must speak for the Indian and it is with great conviction, for the Indian has no voice raised on his behalf. Yes, slavery was cruel. Even today the Negro still does not enjoy the freedoms of white folks. But in being enslaved, the Negro was given a roof over his head, clothing, and food for his table Once his terrible journey to America was over, to live, he learned to bow to his masters.

“The Indian was driven from his land. It was taken from him, at the point of a gun, to satisfy the greed of men whose only interest was gold, timber, and farmland. His game was killed, his forests cut down, and he was pushed farther and farther west, onto the territories of other tribes who naturally wanted to protect their homelands from invaders.

“Everywhere he looked, the Indian was surrounded by enemies. If he tried to stay and fight, the white men sent armies with weapons the Indians could not obtain. The arrow and the knife were no match for the Winchester and the Hotchkiss gun. The white men hunted Indians down like deer, and were sometimes not satisfied to kill just the braves, but slaughtered also the women and children.

“And all the while the white man was cheating the Indian, he said to himself, ‘The only good Indian is a dead Indian.’

“Tribe fought with tribe, and then when their numbers were diminished and they joined together, it was too late. The white man had settled the land, laid the railroads, and killed the buffalo. There was nothing left but suffering, hunger, and disease. An ancient civilization was destroyed.

“Our forefathers wrote in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal. We know that they could not have believed it to be true, because even as those words were written, the Negro was living in slavery and the white man was stealing the very lives of the Indians. The promise of freedom guaranteed by the Constitution was given only to those who already had it.

“Now, the Negro has been granted emancipation, and the right to own land, to travel and worship as he pleases, but the Indian is no better off than he has been since the white man came to this place. After all, it is just seven years since the terrible massacre at Wounded Knee.

“Yes, some folks would say that the Indians did their share of stealing and killing as well. When I was a child living in Indian Territory, my family lived in fear that the Indians would rise up against the settlers. My father had built his house on Indian lands by mistake, right on an old hunting trail.

“But I also remember that when the Indians met by a creek near our house to form a council of war against the whites, it was an Osage chief who saved us. I might not be standing here today had he not pledged his warriors to protect us from other tribes.”

Heads nodded, and a murmur ran through the crowd.

“It is interesting for me to remember, as well, that when I lived in that little house, we once all came down deathly sick with ague [malaria]. The only doctor who rode all those miles into the Indian wilderness to tend to us was Dr. Tan. And he was a Negro.”

The audience gasped.

“So if I must weigh the question of who has suffered the greatest cruelty, I must argue that in a country where a Negro has the freedom and the possibility to become a doctor, but where Indians are still hunted down like animals, it is the Indian who has suffered most.”

 

6 Comments

  1. Sheila says:

    Excellent defense, Tracy. Thank you for taking time to state your view so eloquently.

    1. Tracy says:

      To be honest, I wish I didn’t have to, Sheila. Hey…maybe we can get my books banned, too! I’d be in excellent company. 🙂

  2. Olivia Hardin says:

    Thank you so much for this, Tracy! 🙂

    1. Tracy says:

      Sure felt good to say what I thought.

  3. Graham Adams says:

    Powerful stuff. Surely books written from a different generation should be seen in context of time. Attitudes have changed now.

    1. Tracy says:

      I agree, Graham, and stripping Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name from the award, when she was responsible for the rise in the children’s literature genre in the 1930s is just a shame.

      I wish the ALA wouldn’t cave to pressure, and I’ve had a great many responses, both posted publicly and private, that concur.

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