So, my new semester of library school is up and running! I’m taking Children’s Literature, which I’m obviously stoked about. Our professor is really enthusiastic and awesome, and on the first day of class she excitedly told us about one of our assignments. It’s called, “I Never Got Around To…” and we are supposed to pick a classic children’s book that we never read as children and report back on it. She offhandedly said, “I do this assignment too. Last year I did Little House on the Prairie for the first time and hated it. I mean, the way she talks about Native Americans… it’s so dated! Why is this still on shelves?!” And I almost had a rage fit, even though she’s right.
I grew up with the Little House books. (Not the show. I’ve actually never seen the show. And I never will.) A family friend gave me a box set of the books, and they looked so grown-up and special on my shelf. I was a little afraid they’d be boring, since they were set in the past, but I was instantly hooked. To this day I have very clear memories of scenes like Laura and Mary roasting the pig’s tail, or Laura and Mary making designs on the frost on the window with Ma’s thimble.
So, I decided to revisit a few of the Little House books on the way to De Smet, South Dakota. From the library, I got Little House on the Prairie and Little Town on the Prairie (that’s #2 and #7 in the Little House series, if you were wondering). On the trip, I learned that my traveling companion Anna had never read the Little House books!! Only watched the show!! It was like I didn’t even know her. Luckily, she was quickly captivated by the books, and so our friendship survived. First, I have to say that Cherry Jones is a great narrator for these books. She sounds both funny and wise. And Paul Woodiel’s fiddle playing is an excellent touch. Pa Ingalls would undoubtedly approve.
Anyway, the books themselves? As a reasonably well-educated adult, yes, they are a little troubling. The way Laura talks about Indians and their “glittering black eyes,” for example. Or her desire to kidnap a papoose. Weird, Laura. So here’s the thing. If you, as an adult, read this book with a child–talk to that child about Native Americans, and the way they were treated by white settlers. Have a conversation about it. I don’t hold Laura Ingalls Wilder accountable for the era she grew up in.
What makes these books racially problematic is also what makes them great: the honest, revealing tone. Laura Ingalls Wilder is incredibly frank about her perceived shortcomings, her secret petty desires, and her sheer delight in tiny pleasures. This is what makes her books timeless. These books will also make you feel like a big spoiled baby. When you hear how excited Laura gets about one piece of candy, or how Ma carries on even after getting a huge log dropped on her leg while helping build their cabin. These people are tough mother-effers. Your 12 hour trip from Illinois to South Dakota, from the comfort of a compact SUV with a huge bag full of snacks, will make you feel like the laziest people ever. You will think twice about purchasing a souvenir T-shirt when you hear Ma fretting about the price of calico. (It didn’t stop me from buying a $14 souvenir bonnet, however.)
Anyway, I took a ton of photos on this trip, which you are officially invited to view in this Flickr set. Here are a few highlights:
Can you imagine living in this with four other people?!