By Shelley Luedtke
Our oldest daughter has lived away from home for several years but has a fair amount of belongings in what she insists is still her bedroom. So it happens occasionally she will wonder if an item she is looking for might still be with us.
After a recent call I went in search of a book she had read in high school and now wanted to read again. In looking for that title I smiled when I came across the "Little House" series of books on her shelf. The stories of the pioneering Ingalls family written by daughter Laura were read again and again when I was a child and I was so excited to share them with my own daughters years later--even though some would suggest I shouldn't.
A trip to South Dakota summers ago took us to the town of De Smet which is the area where several of the books are set. You can wander their homestead, tour the house that Pa built, spend time reading documents and looking through items belonging to family members, and even visit the cemetery where several are buried.
The books have not been without controversy over the years. There is discussion over the amount of editing that may have taken place by colleagues and editors; even suggesting the work of a ghost writer. Yet this has been disproven by other researchers. There is also the problem of chronology in some of the books since Laura was actually younger in real life than portrayed. However her own daughter indicated this was a publisher's decision since they didn't think the memories of a younger child would ring true. Along the way some places she lived were skipped over so the timeline could catch up.
But at their heart, the books tell the stories of a family who, like many others, settled the land, built homes, started families, fought fires, experienced droughts, served on local governments and built communities. They are Laura's stories, set primarily in the 1870's, in language and vocabulary in use at the time. And that's the problem. The Association for Library Service to Children used to give out an honour called the Laura Ingalls Wilder award. As of June 2018 it, like so many buildings, roadways and statues, has been removed and renamed.
The problem with what Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote, and what prompted the stripping of her name, is her portrayal of Native Americans. The vocabulary used is derogatory and demeaning. When you read it the language shocks. As it should, and still should. The author was writing what she knew and heard as a child, describing the perceptions as they were. It was not a sociological treatise. It was storytelling at a time when, regrettably, this was the language used. Was it offensive? Absolutely! Dreadful in its depiction? Without question. But to now try and keep us from seeing these words only serves to whitewash the historical record. An attempt to shield future generations from what was spoken in the past, or a desire to protect those who are offended today, is to do a disservice to an understanding of our history. It is ugly to confront--but it needs to be confronted.
Other incidents in her books were written about very differently than they would be in current literature. Her husband's illness, their inability to earn a living for several years, the death of a newborn son, and the loss of their home following an accidental fire set by their daughter are incredibly harsh setbacks that a writer today would delve into far more deeply. But writing in her time she spoke of them in the way her contemporaries would.
Stripping our books, buildings and bridges from the truth of what used to be takes away our ability to recognize the mindset from which we've come and where we are now. Trying to sanitize the historical record takes away from its reality and it becomes a hindrance to our understanding of what used to be.
We need to acknowledge the past if we are to understand the present. Supporting the keeping of history is not equivalent to agreeing with it. We want to ensure when we reach into the bookshelf we will find portrayals of what truly was, not what we may wish it had been. That's my outlook.
By Shelley Luedtke