Last week I made mention of the recent news that the name of Laura Ingalls Wilder has been removed from the award that, until this year, bore her name–an award given to writers or illustrators of children’s books who have made a lengthy contribution to children’s literature. As I mentioned it I invited readers to submit letters to the editor with their comments on this decision. I received many of them and want to share some of them with you.
Thank you for your article on the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal. Laura is indeed a part of American culture and literature and has become a bit of an icon for all things good and wholesome. As immediate past president and current board member of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association I’d like to share a link to our opinion on this issue.
Our association has become the premiere source for information and research on Wilder, her life, and her works. We hold a research conference every two years where we have introduced people to the research of prominent Wilder scholars such as William Anderson, John Miller and Pulitzer Prize winner Caroline Fraser. Our next conference is in 2019. Also, I have written and published a blog article on the topic of racism in the Little House books. It is found here.
—Dr. Laura McLemore, Maize, KS
Like you I was profoundly impacted by the written works of Laura Ingalls Wilder during my growing up years. Somewhat delayed in my reading abilities due to dyslexia, I listened to the audio recordings of her books countless times from our local library. At the age of ten, having never been able previously to read a chapter book, but frustrated that the recordings only went through the book entitled Little Town on the Prairie, I picked up the next book in the series These Happy Golden Years and was able to read it cover to cover (my first chapter book). Laura was admirable to me because of her sense of duty, curious mind, and incredible life experiences in exploring God’s creation. In short, Laura Ingalls was my hero growing up, and I still long to travel to the western U.S. and learn more of pioneer life.
As to the issue of renaming the award previously known as the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal, here are my thoughts. As Christians, we know that the Bible is the only inerrant work on this earth. We also know that God has appointed sinful and even unsaved men to carry out His providence. This means that when I read Laura’s work and consider her legacy, I will not find nor do I expect to find perfection, or even that I will agree with her opinions. I do know that the Lord sovereignly appointed her ways, including her writing and how it has impacted her audience.
So, what then do I expect of Laura Ingalls’s writings? I expect good writing. In short, writing that is both technically excellent, artistically beautiful, and timelessly entertaining. I also expect authenticity. For example, if much of the land in the western U.S. was considered the European settlers by right despite the Indian occupation, then I expect Laura to convey that in her writing. This does not make it right a right view according to the Bible, but only true of her family’s perspective during that time. However, I value having the opportunity to understand history apart from how modern day historians, politicians, sociologist, and others desire to report it. Hearing a firsthand account that portrays the sentiments of that era now gone by is a precious privilege. There were grave errors made by her generation, but also by mine. I would like to humbly submit that had I lived at the time, it could only be the grace of God that would keep me from believing likewise. In reality, the Lord has allowed us to live at a time in history where we are standing on the shoulders of giants from almost every field, from theology to farming. We should see Laura’s work as something we can learn from and in light of Scriptural truth, continuing to grow in our understanding of our heritage and how we have the ability to impact future generations.
Finally, as to the award name. Personally, I feel it unnecessary to change the name for the reasons cited by ALSC. In contrast, I would point to Laura as a noble influencer of American children’s literature, as well as someone to be commended for sharing her life experiences although they must have seemed somewhat common to her. That is where the real wonder comes in. Laura was able to transform the ordinary into what many children have seen as grand and something to aspire to. As a child, I whole heartedly wanted to head west in my wagon, but was devastated to learn that I would find much of modern civilization there, along with the issues of past and current generations. However, is not communicating this wonder what children’s authors and illustrators strive towards in their work? That is, to captivate the attention of a child so that they are stimulated to imagine and creatively play?
By keeping Laura’s name in the award, we could be reminded of someone who lead children’s literature by a noteworthy example, and not by embarrassment that association with her name may not embrace our current moral values. The postmodernist sees truth as individualized, so Laura’s story is her story and our story is ours. The drum beat of the modern day moral revolution is to make our story one that is all inclusive, instead of portraying reality. It is essentially inclusive of everything but reality, history as it occurred, and God’s design. However, losing grip with reality is to devalue not only our heritage, but the current and future of the human existence. Thank you, Tim, for challenging us to think and write Biblically about this.
—Rose S, New Salem, NC
Like many others, I fondly remember the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. They drew back the curtain on a world I could never experience otherwise. I knew that world was a foundational precursor to mine. The courage, self-sufficiency, the unforgiving conditions depicted were a crucible for my America. Even as a 10 year old, I noticed her inappropriate racial attitudes. My family had taught me differently. I was taken by the perspective she unintentionally revealed. I wondered would I have said those things if I were in her place just as I wondered about my potential for braving a blizzard. She was not racially educated and her books give an insight into how an otherwise admirable person can be unaware of their own biases.
How does prejudice work? How do people become prejudiced? Do I have these kinds of blind spots? I’ve seen historic mining camps in Pennsylvania where greedy business men exploited European immigrants. I’ve gone to Monticello and contemplated the situation of household slaves. I’ve walked the site of Mitchellville, SC the first town built entirely by freedmen by the decree of a Union General. What was life like for these people? I long for first-hand accounts to better understand them. The historical figures we are so quick to judge with a one dimensional yardstick, removing statues and awards bearing their names, have intrinsic value. We can applaud what they did well and reject their error and be better people ourselves because they went before us.
The Little House on the Prairie series is an invaluable insight into the mind of an individual, a product of that time,including flawed beliefs and perspectives. Elvis Presley popularized a song lyric, “before you criticize and abuse, walk a mile in my shoes.” What a gift to be able to walk in Laura’s shoes, when she wore them, and more fully understand the profound effect of culture on us all.
Why shouldn’t children emulate her? Why shouldn’t they be brave and resourceful? Why shouldn’t be encouraged to document their lives as she did hers? Not just because she had erroneous prejudices! Let you who are without sin throw the first stone! No! Identify the prejudices, yes! Teach children to look for indicators in everything they read that suggest bias. But don’t fail to recognize that people like Laura Ingalls Wilder stand in history as milestones in our journey. Her legacy is a snapshot back in time that gives us all the perspective to evaluate our own biases.
—Karen, Warsaw, IN
Thank you for the opportunity to express my opinion on the renaming of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal.
If we look into the past, there are many, many flaws in our treatment of other people. As far back as time there has been anger and hatred, ill will and lowly thinking towards other human beings. No doubt, those mistakes, flaws that every human can find in their own hearts if only they will look, are certainly offensive to our maker, who loves without measure or favoritism. As times change, I believe that we cannot, and should not, try to hide ourselves from past infractions. We must learn from them. Anyone who reads Laura Ingalls Wilder books can plainly see that they were written about a different time in history, that the author wrote them from her personal experience, and that those writings do not reflect today’s “inclusive” teaching. She is also relaying her thoughts from when she was very young. Maturity and life experience as an adult was yet to press itself into her thinking. Also, this is a story, based on some facts, but also a story! At that time in history, indigenous people were being threatened, and those causing the threat were right to fear their reaction! Mrs. Wilder expresses her thinking based on the reality of her culture. Will we be eliminating names from today’s culture in fifty years? If we try to erase the past, in all its forms, we shoot ourselves in the foot. We will surely repeat all the mistakes of those who have gone before us.
There are a lot of good things in Laura Ingalls Wilder books that also throw light on the good in humanity. We find a strong message of perseverance, and the strength of a family bond. By removing Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name from this medal, that sends a different message of exclusivity. It comes across as a punishment for her honesty in her situation in that time in history. It says that people’s names will be removed if they do not think a certain way, or speak an “acceptable” message.
It is also a constitutional right to all Americans to speak their opinion. Just because some people may disagree, does not make it their right to blot it out, which taking her name off the medal is certainly an attempt to do so. Taking Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name off the medal is only a reactionary way to discredit her. At the time, her thoughts and opinions were understandable (given her age and ignorance of other peoples.) I am not excusing her attitude of other peoples, but am saying that, as a child, in her time, was a reflexion of what she had been taught, and what she experienced in her real world.
The truth, Laura’s truth, should not be treated as something to be ashamed of. If we erased names from all our monuments, books, documents, etc., we would have nothing left to record the past, and guide the future. We must face reality, and each of us reflect on our own lives, finding the fault within ourselves!
—Tina M, Happy Valley, OR
I think that one thing we need to be conscious of within our culture today (especially in the church) is evaluating people (whether Christian or pagan) based on when they lived and what knowledge they had at the time. I have heard cries recently that would doubt the salvation of Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield because it was documented that they had owned slaves. I know that there is much greater context involved here, but how can we hold those who came before us accountable for things that even America has had to learn and change over time? It doesn’t justify them, but can’t we understand that living in a different era with a different understanding counts for something? Would Edwards and Whitefield own slaves today? I doubt it. I don’t think it would be fair to judge the early churches understanding of the Trinity (even after the Council of Nicaea) based on our understanding of it today as many theologians have helped to refine the doctrine over time.
With that being said, renaming the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal seems like a knee-jerk reaction to me. I think we need to be charitable to those who came before us and understand that, had they been given the knowledge we have today, that they may not have (probably would not have) made the same decision that they did when they were alive.
I don’t want anybody to fall into the trap that we can’t learn anything from those who came before us because they don’t know what we know today. I think there is a lot of value in reading books from people who lived before our time. But I think we need to read through an honest lens where we work through the tensions knowing there is both good and bad when we look at history.
I hope the same people who doubt the salvation of Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield and made the decision to have the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal renamed realize that people will look back and study the era we are living in and evaluate it. There will be successes that will be celebrated and failures that will be condemned but those failures shouldn’t take away from the successes. Do we want people to show us charity after we die and the equivalent of ‘the only good Indian is a dead Indian’ and slavery is exposed and it’s realized how wrong we were?
—Jason H, River Falls, WI
I’m one who thinks it’s okay for award names to change. To give an award with a name tied to it indicates to me that the association is honoring both the awardee and the name—a MLK Jr. award would communicate that the awardee is achieving something to further MLK Jr.’s cause. I’m fine with organizations adjusting with the times by changing the titles of their awards.
That said, I think Wilder’s books are still a critical part of the children’s literature canon. I grew up reading them and have read them to my own children. The racial issues are real but we’ve used them as a conversation starter for how God wants us to love and respect those different than us. Not for how culture looks at race, but for how God does. I think we can agree that while our generation views race differently than Wilder’s, we still have issues. Also, whatever we think we have “right” will probably be “proven” wrong in another 50 years or so. There is value in realizing that cultural opinions come and go but God’s word stands forever—Wilder’s books have been a great introduction to that truth in our family.
—Jenny P, Debary, FL
This week, I finished reading Little House on the Prairie to my daughter. Right about the time I reached the most controversial chapter of the book, describing the final removal of the Osage from Indian Territory, my phone lit up with notifications that the ALSC had decided to remove Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name from a major literary award, more or less because of that chapter. A friend described this as the ALSC wanting to distance themselves from Wilder altogether without making a clean break – she is still the inaugural recipient of the award, after all, and her books will remain on library shelves. The outcry from readers and fans was dismissed over and over this week. It’s just an award, and after all, everyone admits there are problematic sections of the Little House books.
Never mind the benefits of the books. Little House on the Prairie was the first novel for children to introduce an African American doctor. By the Shores of Silver Lake and the subsequent books introduce a disability (Mary Ingalls’ blindness) without romanticizing it or making Mary a pathetic figure. Christian faith runs throughout the books; hymns are frequently quoted. For many of us, the “Little House” books were the first place in children’s literature we would encounter all of that, and our worldview was widened at a tender age.
But what of the Osage, and Ma Ingalls’ infamous denigration of Indians? Her opinions are countered at every point by Pa’s insistence that there is nothing to fear. As the Indians leave the territory the Ingalls family had illegally entered, we get the most incredibly moving description of what happened on the American frontier that is still appropriate to read to children. There is no “indoctrination” going on, no convincing modern readers that what happened was right, that the Indians the Ingalls family encountered were “less than.”
I read that chapter to my daughter this week. She is six years old. We both sat there with tears in our eyes. She asked me why Ma didn’t like Indians, why they couldn’t all share the prairie if it was so big, and she asked me, over and over, was any of this “real?” My point is, a conversation was begun. My daughter wants to keep reading the books, and in the next novel we’ll encounter bullying, turning the other cheek, and the importance of inclusion. I will keep having conversations with her about the hard history the books force readers to encounter, too. This is the legacy Wilder left us. We have to grow up in a fallen world, and we have to learn from it. Ignoring our past gets us nothing at all.
Removing Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name from the ALSC award is a step toward denying that we can still learn from what she wrote. It is saying that she wasn’t as influential as she really was. It is denying that her legacy matters at all. But it also, and this is what upsets me the most, says that the hard conversations aren’t worth having. The ALSC is saying they would prefer to bury our history, rather than encounter it and learn from it. That is antithetical to what I want to teach my daughter
—Michele S, Austin, TX