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Home Uncategorized The Integrity of the Past

The Integrity of the Past

Donal Moloney

Born in the Big Woods area of Wisconsin in 1867, Laura Ingalls Wilder is the author of the much-loved “Little House” series of books for children. The novels are based on her childhood experiences along the Western frontier as her family struggled to establish itself. She began writing the series in the 1930s, when she was in her sixties. Later the work was the source material for the popular TV show Little House on the Prairie. Her literary excellence was acknowledged in 1954, when the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) named a prestigious prize for American children’s authors after her. Earlier this year, the ALSC removed her name from the title of the award over concerns about racial insensitivity. This essay argues that she has been unfairly maligned.

On the way home Pa said, “Well, Caroline, it’s pleasant to be with a crowd of people all trying to do the right thing, same as we are.”
Laura Ingalls Wilder, On the Banks of Plum Creek

Viewed pragmatically, the recent decision to remove the name of Laura Ingalls Wilder from a prestigious award for children’s literature can only be described as a sensible move. The legacy of the popular “Little House” series of books had become controversial, with accusations of anti-Native and anti-black sentiments. And even if the racially insensitive passages were mild, it might be considered wrong for a children’s literature prize with aspirations to universality to honour an author with an imperfect record on racism. Most people would agree that children’s literature is not a suitable site for dubious content or racially polarising material.

Moreover, if literary institutions are serious about inclusivity – creating an environment in which writers from minority backgrounds feel they have a fair chance to thrive and be heard – then surely that means responding to concerns about racism? Having a major prize named after an author accused of racism could have a discouraging effect on traditionally marginalised ethnic groups.

At any rate, who needs the hassle? When a controversy gains enough traction, it consumes the time and resources and taxes the emotions of those caught up in it. And when racism is at issue, reputations can be quickly and lastingly sullied.

Accordingly, the decision by the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) – a division of the American Library Association (ALA) – to change the name of their high-profile prize from the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal to the Children’s Literature Legacy Award makes eminent good sense. Dull as it is, the new name is perfectly future-proof and gives no hostages to fortune.

So much for pragmatics. But are the charges against Laura Ingalls Wilder accurate and fair? Perhaps naively, I take it as axiomatic that this question matters. If you think that you cannot make an omelette without cracking a few eggs – or that smearing a dead writer’s reputation is a small price to pay for social progress – then this essay is not for you.

It is my contention that the charges against Laura Ingalls Wilder’s work are largely bogus and exaggerated and based on distorted readings of her work. In this essay, I will criticise the inflexibility and lack of historical understanding and general intolerance with which her work has been attacked. I will look at the ALSC’s statements, the media coverage of the case and two academic papers cited by the ALSC as background reading for their decision. Comparing these with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s work and life, I will seek to expose how unfairly she has been maligned.

The whole knotty tangle takes a bit of unpicking, but it is worth the effort if you think that the fair treatment of individuals by powerful institutions matters. The journey is also instructive, because once you see how unfair the misrepresentations of Laura Ingalls Wilder are, the more disturbing it becomes that no major authors have come out and stood up for her.

Chronicling the adventures of the Ingalls family on the American frontier as they move from one precarious home to another, the “Little House” books are a series of novels based on their author’s own childhood. Full of authentic detail about settler existence – hunting and homemaking, farming and schooling, wilderness and civilisation – the books have a good claim to being the quintessential account of the American West. They have been loved by generations of children – and by girls especially.

Controversy about the work has centred on the most famous of the series, Little House on the Prairie. The third novel of nine – and the second to feature the Ingalls family – it begins with the family moving in a covered wagon from the Big Woods of Wisconsin to “Indian Territory” in Kansas. (In real life, the cabin was actually in the adjacent Osage Diminished Reserve.) Told from a little girl’s perspective, it continues in the vein of Little House in the Big Woods as it demonstrates her parents’ vigour, skill, thrift, resilience and love, while also establishing little Laura’s personality and her deep spiritual connection with the prairie landscape and its flora and fauna. Gradually, however, the novel becomes something much more complex, as its readers are confronted with the reality that Pa has settled illegally on Osage land in the belief that the government will be sending in the army to drive out the Native people. Moreover, the book reveals Pa’s selfish motives for getting in early and snaffling a portion of prime land.

Out of this material, Laura Ingalls Wilder creates a narrative of impressive depth and ambiguity and irresolution. For the majority of its reception history, most critics have praised its complexity and sympathetic portrayal of the Native American “other”, while most readers have responded favourably to the authenticity and fair-mindedness with which the conflict between cultures is handled. Over time, some aspects of Wilder’s treatment of the Osage have come to seem patronising or outmoded or hostile to most readers. Some critics have gone further and denounced the book as anti-Native and racist and even, as we will see, as an apology for ethnic cleansing.

Certainly, in a few instances the book is clunky and insensitive in its portrayal of the Osage. And these are elements a different writer of the era might have handled better. I will come to these in due course, but to construe the book as anti-Native is a lopsided interpretation that can only be maintained by some combination of the following three things: ignoring the majority of the book in which Wilder treats the Osage with sympathy and understanding; ignoring the way that in a novel, different views held by different characters form complex portraits of a society; ignoring the way that Wilder does not duck many tough questions.

First, though, it is good to be up front about one thing: In Little Town on the Prairie, the seventh book in the series, Pa dresses up in blackface and performs in a minstrel show alongside other townsfolk. The performance is presented in the book as an entertaining little episode and nothing else. As short as the scene is, it still diminishes our opinion of Laura Ingalls Wilder for writing it.

In Prairie Fires, Caroline Fraser’s excellent biography of Wilder, she quotes Frederick Douglass’s denunciation of blackface minstrelsy as “the filthy scum of white society”, which is as succinct and apt a characterisation as you could hope for. In mitigation, it should be noted that American society was very different in 1935. To appreciate that, we need only reflect on the many injustices the civil rights movement of the 1960s sought to overturn. Or we could consider with dismay that when the Wilder family moved to Mansfield, Missouri in 1894, it was a “sundown town”, where black people were not welcome to stay after dark, as revealed in Prairie Fires.

Also, blackface minstrelsy, while never other than a malicious art form based on mocking the dreams and aspirations of the enslaved and disenfranchised, took various forms, not all of which were implacably hostile to black people. For instance, some of the songs that originated in minstrelsy are sweet and respectful of African American experiences – a poetic verse from one such song, “Gum Tree Canoe”, closes Little House on the Prairie. Accordingly, the following two statements are equally true: first, presenting blackface minstrelsy uncritically in 1935 when Little Town on the Prairie was published – referring back to a time almost sixty years before that – is not the same as doing so in 2018; second, a person in 1935 who was properly sensitive to the injustice suffered by black people would not have written such a scene.

Not to put too fine a point on it: the uncritical minstrelsy scene is wrong and shows casual acceptance of a racist cultural tradition. In the scene, the term “darkies” is also bandied around, featuring in a song and also to refer to the white performers. Its casual use makes the scene even more unpleasant. Beyond this, the word also features in a song Pa plays in Little House on the Big Woods. The song itself is inconsequential and the fact that Pa plays it is insignificant – he is a musical magpie who picks up whatever tunes he can find – but the word is still an ugly presence in a children’s book.

But – and this is also important – that is it: in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s work and in her life, there is no recorded instance of racist views in relation to black people. The only black character in the books is a doctor who appears in Little House on the Prairie and who helps the family in a time of dire need.

In terms of understanding how Wilder has been mischaracterised, it is crucial to note that the minstrelsy scene and the term “darkey” occur in depictions of outmoded racist cultural traditions, but Wilder categorically does not use them to refer to a black character in the books. Moreover, the minstrelsy scene and offensive song lyrics are isolated and not linked to any other anti-black views or behaviour, not in Wilder’s work, or her letters, or her recorded personal life. It is not too lenient, I think, to observe that the cancer of genuine racism usually spreads more widely than this.

In many instances, the media coverage of the ALSC decision was exceptionally ill-informed. On this side of the Atlantic, this can partly be excused by a general lack of familiarity with Wilder’s work. But one would expect better from The New York Times, which set out the case against Wilder as follows:

Despite their popularity, Ms. Wilder’s books contain jarringly prejudicial portrayals of Native Americans and African Americans.
In the 1935 book “Little House on the Prairie,” for example, multiple characters espoused versions of the view that “the only good Indian was a dead Indian.” In one scene, a character describes Native Americans as “wild animals” undeserving of the land they lived on.
“Little Town on the Prairie,” published in 1941, included a description of a minstrel show with “five black-faced men in raggedy-taggedy uniforms” alongside a jolting illustration of the scene.

The accuracy of the “jarringly prejudicial portrayals” claim can be reliably gauged by the weakness of the examples provided. First of all, as explained above, the books do not contain any prejudicial descriptions of African American characters. That is a simple error of fact. On a formal level, it is true that multiple characters espouse versions of the view that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian”. And if multiple characters espouse the view, Wilder must be endorsing it somehow, an innocent newspaper reader would conclude. Otherwise, why would the journalist adduce it as evidence of a “jarringly prejudicial portrayal” of Native Americans?

In fact, it is one settler couple in the novel, the Scotts, who espouse this view. It appears in the book three times: once Mrs Scott says it; once Mr Scott says it; once the narrator, Laura, says that Pa doesn’t believe in it, no matter what Mr Scott says. In the novel, the Scotts are portrayed as implacably hostile to the “Indians” throughout. They are the characters who represent the aggressively racist view. It is a shocking sentiment to find in a children’s novel, but given that the setting is the Kansas plains on the cusp of the dispossession of the Osage, it is surely to Wilder’s credit that her novel shows some of the ugliness around at the time. What would have been truly remiss is if she had omitted the racism – indeed, she would then be rightly accused of whitewashing the past.

In the novel, the Scotts are not condemned by the narrator, but their irrational hatred is exposed very effectively nonetheless. The New York Times is thus attacking Wilder for doing her duty as a novelist – exposing a truth without clumsy sermonising. Whether the sentiment expressed by the Scotts is too harsh for a children’s novel, particularly one that Native American children may encounter in school, is a question I do not know how to answer. However, I can see how it could be upsetting to a Native American child if presented insensitively by a teacher. Whatever one’s views on that point, to present the “dead Indian” line as an example of a “jarringly prejudicial portrayal[s] of Native Americans” on the part of the author is a failure of reading comprehension.

Meanwhile, The Guardian reported that

The phrase “the only good Indian is a dead Indian”, is repeated three times in Little House on the Prairie, while in On the Banks of Plum Creek, Mary tells Laura: “You’ll be brown as an Indian, and what will the town girls think of us?” In Little Town on the Prairie, Laura’s father takes part in a minstrel show, while Laura’s mother’s dislike of Native Americans is made clear: “She looked as if she were smelling the smell of an Indian whenever she said the word. Ma despised Indians. She was afraid of them, too.”

Again, the context in which the ‘dead Indian’ phrase is uttered is ignored in favour of insinuation. And if the “brown as an Indian” remark sounds mild out of context, it is even milder in context. In the “Little House” books, the narrator, Laura, consistently identifies with the perceived freedom of the “Indians”, wishing for example on stifling hot days that she could take off her clothes and run free. This is the passage the “brown as an Indian” remark comes from:

Large white clouds sailed in the enormous sky and their gray shadows trailed across the waving prairie grasses. The road always ended a little way ahead, but when they came to that ending, the road was going on. It was only the tracks of Pa’s wagon through the grass. “For pity’s sake, Laura,” said Mary, “keep your sunbonnet on! You’ll be brown as an Indian, and what will the town girls think of us?” “I don’t care!” said Laura, loudly and bravely.

To a reader not eagerly seeking to take offence, the dialogue strikes us as realistic. That is how people thought and spoke. The American frontier was a place where white settler children did not want to be confused with “Indians” yet may secretly have longed to be like them – at least in the case of imaginatively sensitive, spirited girls like Laura. Citing this kind of authentic dialogue as evidence of racism is a wilful refusal to recognise context and exercise historical imagination. It is the type of sentiment that “good” white girls living on the frontier expressed back then, but which good white girls today would not think. To appreciate this is to take the first step towards thinking historically. Not only has language use changed, but also what people consider to be good and proper. The fact that it was the pious Mary who uttered the line and complacently ended up on the wrong side of history ought to give Laura Ingalls Wilder’s shrillest critics pause for thought.

The little scene deftly reveals the poor, rural children’s insecurities about being considered wild and uncouth. It reflects a society in which cultural understanding between white settlers and Native Americans is imperfect, but that was the historical reality. It is not the job of authors to sugar-coat the past in anticipation of changing sensitivities and language use in the future – even if it were possible, this would not be desirable.

As for Ma fearing and hating “Indians”, that is simply true. Throughout the series of books, Wilder consistently portrays her mother as fearful and prejudiced. Those of us who have known people of this cast will recognise Wilder’s portrait of a fearful racist as authentic. But Laura – the narrator – clearly tends to favour Pa’s sympathetic views. I struggle to see how a novelist portraying racism without endorsing it can be legitimately criticised.

Furthermore, Ma’s small-minded dislike of “Indians” is of a piece with her other views, such as her general suspicion of foreigners and narrow view of the roles suitable for women, as illustrated by the scene in The Long Winter when Ma says she did not like to see American women working in the fields. Ma is forever trying to teach the girls how to be prim and proper in all things. If we were being sympathetic, we might look for the root of Caroline Ingalls’s desperate need for propriety in her harsh, disorderly childhood and in the vulnerability of her situation as an isolated settler’s wife on the frontier. And we might see her animosity towards “wild” Native Americans as a misplaced pathological offshoot of this need. In any case, her animosity towards Native Americans is not presented as an appealing characteristic, but as part of a whole psychological package – and moreover one that is challenged by other characters. In short, readers are not being asked to identify with her racism.

In Ireland, the Journal.ie had the following to say:

Critics have highlighted anti-native and anti-black sentiments in Wilder’s work for decades, although her books are still published, read and loved by many. In 1952, a reader complained to publishers Harper’s about the author’s characterisation of the West as a place where “there were no people. Only Indians lived there”, The Washington Post reported.

The charge of “anti-black sentiments” – plural – in her work is misleading and harsh. That the book originally had the “no people, [o]nly Indians” line is true, but when the complaint was forwarded to Wilder, she called it a “stupid blunder” and said: “Of course Indians are people and I did not mean to imply they were not.” The line was then duly amended. Otherwise, the book treats the Native Americans as people throughout – there is absolutely no confusion on this point.

The Irish Examiner went a step further in failing to mention that the “no people” line had been changed at all:

One of the opening chapters of the Little House books describe a land with “no people. Only Indians lived there”.

The same article contains the by now familiar misrepresentation:

“The only good Indian is a dead Indian” another character says.

And it adds a new untrue claim (which I’ve dealt with above):

African-American characters are also called “darkies” in the book.

I chose examples from these particular outlets, but the same claims were repeated across much of the media. When you take out the false insinuations and inaccuracies, you are not left with very much.

If the media piled in on Laura Ingalls Wilder with unscrupulous abandon, it would seem they were taking their lead from the ALSC, whose official pronouncements were as unfair as they were sanctimonious. In a document sent to the ALSC’S board of directors recommending that a task force be set up to review the title of the award, then ALSC president Nina Lindsay began her discussion of the Wilder Award as follows:

Laura Ingalls Wilder has long held a complex legacy, as her books reflect racist and anti-Native sentiments and are not universally embraced.

Despite the apparent neutrality of the language, this is more of a slur than a statement of fact. First of all, the conjunction of “racist and anti-Native” is calculated to do maximum damage to Wilder’s reputation. It is either tautological or else an attempt to make that one short scene from Little Town on the Prairie cast a shadow over the rest of the work. The truth is that in her work and in her life, Wilder had nothing bad to say about black people or people of other ethnicities.

But even to say that her books reflect anti-Native sentiments is only true in a highly selective sense. In fact, her books on the whole are pro-Native – sympathetic to and admiring of Native Americans. That is not to say that every portrayal chimes perfectly with today’s expectations, but the overwhelming good faith of Wilder’s depiction of Native Americans is apparent to all readers who are capable of reading novels in the round. Throughout the series, the narrator, Laura, expresses sentiments such as the following, from By the Shores of Silver Lake:

Only a little while before the vast herds of thousands of buffaloes had grazed over this country. They had been the Indians’ cattle, and white men had slaughtered them all.

The reason why readers with liberal and anti-racist views (and I count myself squarely in this camp) can enjoy Laura Ingalls Wilder’s work – aside of course from the compelling stories, supple prose and vividly evoked details of frontier life – is that we know, from passages like the above, that Laura – the narrator and the author – does not share the racist views of some of the settlers.

In a handful of scenes, Wilder nevertheless uncritically “reflects” outdated and stereotypical attitudes to Native Americans. What I mean by this – and what Lindsay presumably means by the verb “reflects” – is that some aspects of the portrayals unthinkingly reproduce hostile or stereotypical attitudes. And it is true that there are little passages in Little House on the Prairie where the conventional attitudes of her time did not pass through her artistic imagination to be transformed there but were delivered more or less undigested. But crucially, the overall story told in Little House on the Prairie – the full arc of the narrative – is one that has been thoroughly processed by Wilder’s artistic imagination, and the treatment of Native Americans is on balance complex and sensitive and alive. Thus, to say that the books “reflect racist and anti-Native sentiments” is to traduce them.

Lindsay continues:

Today, this award elevates a legacy that is not consistent with values of diversity and inclusion ‑ something we did not fully understand as a profession when we created the award.

As a slippery argument to give the library association a free pass, this is pretty neat. According to Lindsay, Wilder’s work reflects “racist and anti-Native” sentiments, but these sentiments were somehow unapparent or unimportant to the ALSC when it named the award after her. Effectively, the library profession of the past must not be judged by the standards of today – it needed to go on a journey to come to its present understanding. Of course, we would expect a library association to have values other than “diversity and inclusion” – and we will return to that point – but there is no way around the fact that if Laura Ingalls Wilder’s work is racist and anti-Native, then it follows that the ALSC has been a racist and anti-Native organisation for most of its history, at least in its prominent celebration of Wilder’s legacy. If the ALSC sincerely holds the position on Wilder’s work that it purports to hold, then a little more humility might have been appropriate.

At the end of Nina Lindsay’s document, she cites two academic papers as recommended reading, both of them highly critical of Little House on the Prairie’s legacy. It is worth examining these papers, because they cover a lot of arguments against the book. Moreover, they comprise the official recommended reading that informed the ALSC debate. In my view, they mix good arguments with bad and leftfield insights with eccentric judgements. If we place them in the context of the full range of academic papers on the subject, then they have their useful place. If we elevate them as singularly valid and use them as the basis for an important practical decision, as the ALSC did, then it is only right to subject them to a little scrutiny. Both are available free online.

I will devote most space to “Little Squatter on the Osage Diminished Reserve”, a study by Frances Kaye from 2000. Its title is explained by the author as follows:

I cannot claim to look at Little House on the Prairie from an Osage point of view, but what I endeavour to do below is to try to imagine what happens to the reading of this novel if one assumes that the Osage, rather than the Anglo settler, point of view is the normative one. I have tried, in my title, to suggest how jarring it can be to change our sense of what is normative.

An approach like this always has the potential to be instructive, and Kaye’s paper is illuminating in some respects. However, the potency of the argument is powerfully diluted by the plot of the novel itself, which makes it unmistakably clear that Charles Ingalls and his family are illegal settlers on Osage land. Apparently Laura Ingalls Wilder balked at using the word “squatter” – it appeared in her correspondence but not in her published work – out of a sense of filial delicacy, but no reader can make it through Little House on the Prairie and not understand that the Ingalls are trespassers on Osage land. It is not some element Wilder attempted to minimise, but absolutely integral to the plot.

The principal argument of Kaye’s essay is that Little House on the Prairie is an “apology for the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the Great Plains”. She argues that Wilder achieves this by lulling “us into believing that the dispossession of the Osage people from Kansas was sad but necessary and even ‘natural,’ like all losses of the innocence of childhood and other primitive ways of being”.

This line of reasoning ignores the many passages in the novel that dramatise the dispossession of the Osage in ways that leave no doubt that it is human political force that is driving them from their lands. For example, as the potential for conflict between the Osage and the settlers is heating up, Pa plays a tune on the fiddle and Ma joins in, singing a sweet popular song about the “Indian” maid Alfarata. The song ends:

Fleeting years have borne away
The voice of Alfarata,
Still flow the waters
Of the blue Juniata.

It is an excellent moment in several regards. First of all, it is the first time that Ma, who fears and hates Indians, empathises with one – albeit a stylised fictional one. It also foreshadows the theme of displacement. If the scene had ended there, Kaye would have had a point. It is a romantic, soft-focus portrait of an “Indian” losing her voice. But it does not end there. It continues:

Ma’s voice and the fiddle’s music softly died away. And Laura asked, “Where did the voice of Alfarata go, Ma?”
“Goodness!” Ma said. “Aren’t you asleep yet?”
“I’m going to sleep,” Laura said. “But please tell me where the voice of Alfarata went?”
“Oh I suppose she went west,” Ma answered. “That’s what the Indians do.”

If it had ended there, Kaye would have had even more of a point. If Laura Ingalls Wilder wanted to portray the dispossession of Native Americans as natural, she could have stopped there. But the character of little Laura in the book has a keen sense of justice, and will not be assuaged by Ma’s vague, romantic assurance:

“Why do they do that, Ma?” Laura asked. “Why do they go west?”
“They have to,” Ma said.
“Why do they have to?”
“The government makes them, Laura,” said Pa. “Now go to sleep.”
He played the fiddle softly for a while. Then Laura asked, “Please, Pa, can I ask just one more question?”
“May I,” said Ma.
Laura began again. “Pa, please, may I—”
“What is it?” Pa asked. It was not polite for little girls to interrupt, but of course Pa could do it.
“Will the government make these Indians go west?”
“Yes,” Pa said. “When white settlers come into a country, the Indians have to move on. The government is going to move these Indians farther west, any time now. That’s why we’re here, Laura. White people are going to settle all this country, and we get the best land because we get here first and take our pick. Now do you understand?”
“Yes, Pa,” Laura said. “But, Pa, I thought this was Indian Territory. Won’t it make the Indians mad to have to—”
“No more questions, Laura,” Pa said, firmly. “Go to sleep.”

So, the government makes the Indians move, because of the settlers. (Elsewhere it is made clear that the army will be doing the actual moving.) This is just as clear to the reader as it is that Pa has built the “little house” illegally on Osage land.

This is one of many wonderfully handled scenes to set in the balance against Wilder’s handful of failings. With emotionally unresolved scenes like this (Go to sleep!), which make it so clear that the expulsion of the Native Americans was to be enforced in the interest of the white settlers who are illegally on Indian land, the theory that Wilder is lulling us into believing that the dispossession of the Osage was “sad but necessary and even ‘natural’” founders on the reef of textual evidence.

Taking aim at admiring critics of Little House, Kaye writes:

All of these critics, however, have portrayed Wilder’s Indians within Wilder’s frame of reference. Thus we see the heroic Ingalls family and the heroic but tragic Osage families, removed from their land, inevitably part of the story of the American West, though its tragic side.


Characterising the portrayal of the Ingalls family as “heroic” is incompatible with any attentive reading of the “Little House” series of books. The process whereby Pa loses his heroic sheen begins with scenes like the one above. Again, that is part of the books’ artistic subtlety. The larger-than-life Pa of the first book – the great provider with his guns and his traps – is shown not only to have greedy motives for occupying Indian land in this book (“I tell you, Caroline, when we begin getting crops off this rich land of ours, we’ll be living like kings!”), but he also fails his family in his breadwinning responsibilities. None of this comes in a dramatic denunciation, but in the patient revelations of the gifted novelist.

There are several occasions on which Pa is shown making ethically incoherent statements, such as:

He figured that Indians would be as peaceable as anyone else if they were let alone. On the other hand, they had been moved west so many times they naturally hated white folks. But an Indian ought to have sense enough to know when he was licked. With soldiers at Fort Gibson and Fort Dodge, Pa didn’t believe these Indians would make any trouble.

Behind Pa’s ostensible sympathy is an ultimate belief in the doctrine that might is right. Rarely has Manifest Destiny been presented in such a morally threadbare way as this. If Indians “naturally” hated white folks for displacing them, the corollary is that it is unnatural – and morally wrong – to force them to move again. If Pa cannot see that, then the reader certainly can. As with any work of fiction, different readers will apply their own understanding to Pa’s utterances, but passages such as this acknowledge the wrong done to the Native peoples.

Sometimes Kaye’s criticisms are so rarefied that they lose contact with the text altogether. For example:

Little House on the Prairie is a complex family narrative … that firmly establishes the myth of the necessary tragedy, the fortunate fall, that arises when the determined farmer meets the nomadic wanderer, the tragedy played out in Judeo-Christian myth from the time of Jacob and Esau. Yet this high-sounding fantasy of Noble Savage versus Yeoman Farmer …

Well, that is all very high-sounding itself, but it ignores all the ways in which the plot of the book hinges on political contingencies – the machinations of the politicians in Washington, the council of Native tribes – not to mention the downbeat ending, in which both the Osage and the Ingalls family move away. These elements are the very opposite of “fortunate” and “necessary”.

There are indeed ways in which Wilder simplified history – and Kaye’s essay usefully details some of them – but she absolutely did not ignore the wider political context or seek to justify the illegal behaviour of the settlers. It is important to appreciate how eccentric these claims are, because they form the basis for Kaye’s claim, mentioned above, that:

Wilder, writing as honestly as she knew how, spun a tale that, because of her very decency, makes “ethnic cleansing” appear palatable.

If we reject Kaye’s view that Wilder portrays the clash of cultures and its catastrophic outcome for Native Americans as “necessary” and “fortunate”, then we can equally dismiss the idea that the book functions as an apology for ethnic cleansing. What kind of archetypal myth pits greedy illegal settlers against Indigenous tribes and ends with both moving on because of the contradictory manoeuvrings of distant politicians? For a little while, Little House on the Prairie does indeed flirt with something archetypal, as the isolated settler family huddle scared in their huts while the sounds of Native tribes making “yipping noises” drifts up to them. Such scenes owe more, one feels, to popular templates than they do to the historical reality or the original imaginings of a novelist – and they are rightly criticised, I feel – but all the same the novel transcends them and ends with its own unique ambivalence and unresolved complexity.

Nowhere is this better exemplified than in Laura’s infantile desire to own a “papoose”. Introduced early in the novel, the wish is a source of tension up to the end, when it is resolved in a highly realistic and satisfactory fashion, as Laura comes to realise how foolish and impossible the notion was. The wish to own an Indian baby has been replaced with a more powerful identification with the plight of the departing Osage. The whole unforgettable scene when the family observe the Osage leaving is shot through with complex emotions – including a valedictory sense for the Native way of life. There is, however, no sense in which the event was shown to be either necessary or fortunate. If Laura Ingalls Wilder had shown the Ingalls family to be disinterested, if she had minimised the racism of the settlers, if she had omitted the political contingencies, if she had tried to hide the way that the success of the settlers is entirely dependent in the final analysis on the might of the US army, then and only then could we say that she had shown the departure to be “necessary” and “fortunate”.

Kaye further claims that:

Like the treaty makers, Wilder and her readers see the story of the Ingalls family in Kansas in a light that valorizes the settlers and makes the removal of the Osages emotionally quite bearable. The sadness readers feel is ennobling, not wrenching …

Passages from the book like the ones I’ve quoted above show the settlers in a compromised light, both the Ingalls and also settlers such as the Scotts. Ma’s fear of Indians, for example, is hardly valorised or justified by the events of the book. We might deplore Wilder for failing to denounce her parents as land thieves; we might say that revealing their failings in a forgiving light – balancing them against their virtues – is understandable in a daughter yet unpardonable in the light of history, but then we would have to ask ourselves seriously just how iniquitous the behaviour of the Ingalls family was.

Charles and Caroline Ingalls made one unsuccessful and short-lived attempt to steal Native land, because they thought it would become available to white settlers very soon anyway. As morally squalid as this was, any fair evaluation would conclude that this dirt-poor couple played a rather modest role in the whole ignominious history of the conquest of the Americas and the ethnic cleansing and genocide of Native peoples. Their daughter did not shy away from dramatising their guilt, but also did not hesitate to show their virtues. Her novels are a testimony to a daughter’s love for her imperfect parents. That is not to valorise settlers in general; it is just a human and touching response to her family’s history and flawed complexity.

Kaye even raises the spectre of genocide in relation to the Ingalls family:

… but most of Wilder’s critics do not respond in the same way because they are still working from within the paradigm of the “Vanishing American.” What they perceive is sad, even tragic, but it is not culpable. It is not “genocide” or “ethnic cleansing.” It evokes the same spirit of melancholy evoked by Shelley’s Ozymandias and the whole romantic tradition, but it does not evoke either in Laura or in Wilder’s readers any sense that, as receivers of stolen property, the story entails for them a sense of responsibility.

Arguably, the complex “Indians Ride Away” chapter is shot through with a measure of Romanticism, but it is a representation of ethnic cleansing nonetheless. If the novel does not include a depiction of genocide, it is because Charles Ingalls did not participate in or witness any killing of Native Americans. Kaye’s odd claim that the reader does not perceive the Ingalls family as “culpable” is only comprehble if we interpret it as meaning egregiously culpable of ethnic cleansing and genocide. Unquestionably, the Ingalls family played their small part in the ethnic cleansing of the Americas, but we can hardly fault her for not inventing acts of genocide for her parents to commit.

Kaye also writes:

Implicit in my argument is my sense that contemporary criticism of Little House on the Prairie refuses to be jarred, and that this is a disservice to contemporary readers (and contemporary writers of children’s books who attempt to follow Wilder’s formula), who might well choose not to be complicit if they had the chance to perceive the book as a justification of continuing human rights violations.

There is a grim, faultless logic at work here: any book that justifies abuses yesterday might be said to justify abuses today and tomorrow. But even if we accepted Kaye’s argument that Little House on the Prairie serves as a justification for a specific human rights abuse – a justification so subtle, mind you, that most readers cannot see it at all – it would only be a justification of continuing human rights violations in the most attenuated and indirect of fashions.

Here is Kaye’s wild spin on Laura’s childish desire to own an Indian baby.

The description of the tall Indian’s “proud still face” ought to alert us that we are watching a pageant of stereotypical stoicism, and Laura’s propensities for kidnaping seem at best bizarre and at worst reminiscent of General William Colby’s abduction of the baby later called Lost Bird from the killing fields of the Wounded Knee massacre.

I rather think most readers who have been little girls, or have ever witnessed a little girl doting over a baby and treating it as a doll would recognise the instinct in Laura. Child psychologists will no doubt recognise Laura’s fixation on the Native baby as a typical response to stressful and overwhelming feelings. To describe her as having propensities for kidnapping is on the far fringes of malign interpretation.

It should go without saying that no writer can survive this sort of one-eyed assault. Human rights violations, ethnic cleansing, genocide, propensities for kidnapping – this is what Frances Kaye wants us to see when we read Little House on the Prairie. The following passage is a good illustration of her making a wrong, counterintuitive claim about the novel and then drawing the most alarming conclusion from her misreading:

The good feelings of Laura and Pa soothe the reader’s conscience as well, apparently, as Wilder’s, but the “collateral damage” of that soothing is making the reader complicit in “ethnic cleansing,” in arguing for it in terms of national destiny, fairness, or self-determination rather than in terms of greed, violence, and racism. Owning up, without shame or apology, to denying the rights and destroying the way of life of thousands of other people is sociopathic, and Laura Ingalls Wilder and her readers are certainly not sociopaths.

(The emphasis in the quotation is mine.) We have already seen how Wilder foregrounded the settlers’ greed (including Pa’s) and racism (including Ma’s) and made the threat of army violence integral to the plot. The idea that she is justifying ethnic cleansing in terms of national destiny or self-determination is simply not substantiated in any way by the text.

In passing, it is worth remarking here that Wilder’s unsparing portrait of racism (such as the “dead Indian” line) was used by the media as a stick with which to beat her. So Wilder is being accused by some critics of being racist for having two of her characters express jarringly racist views and by others – such as Kaye above – for minimising the racism involved in the removal of Native Americans from their lands. I rather think that, far from being any sort of sociopaths (a prospect raised by Kaye using the sly old rhetorical trick of apophasis) Wilder’s legions of passionate readers are better at understanding how novels work than her most implacably hostile detractors.

Despite my criticisms of Kaye’s essay, it has much interesting context and is good on the ways Wilder simplifies history with the effect of making the Osage seem more mythically primitive. It is true that the Indian War-Cry episode and the portrait of the “good Indian” Soldat du Chêne are grounded more in received notions than in historical reality. These are ways in which Wilder’s book fails artistically and could be fairly argued to contribute to the propagation of stereotypes. Yet the essay contains too many simple misreadings and bizarre conclusions to be considered anything like a standard reference. For example:

As Miner and Unrau remind us, Paul Wallace Gates pointed out more than forty years ago that “Indian removal from Kansas” was not “a battlefield encounter between befeathered warriors on the one hand and hardy pioneers on the other,” as one might guess from reading Little House on the Prairie.

At this point, one is reduced to marvelling at how far Kaye strays into an imaginary text that Wilder did not write.

A specialist in the representation of Native Americans in children’s literature and a Nambé Pueblo tribal member, Debbie Reese was a leading campaigner for the removal of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name from the ALSC award. In this paper from 2008, she discusses how popular children’s books by white authors, by virtue of their ubiquity in classrooms, libraries and homes, can perpetuate stereotypes of Native Americans and a false sense of Native history. As such, adding books with Native American perspectives to reading lists, she argues, may not be enough to counterbalance this lopsided and incorrect representation, because white teachers and librarians and readers will often gravitate to the flawed, classic works.

Reese writes:

First, I wish to carve a space in the field of children’s literature, where Indigenous values and knowledge are respected … Carving a space where Indigenous values and knowledge are respected means creating an informed environment within the children’s literature arena that supports Indigenous nation building. Creation of that environment means displacing the stereotypes and erroneous ideas that many people “know” about American Indians, and replacing them with accurate information.

This is an important task and one I would heartily support. A situation whereby most of the depictions of Native American peoples that a child encounters in the classroom are written by white authors who were not necessarily knowledgeable about Native cultures is a recipe for misinformation. Moreover, encountering insensitive depictions of their cultures could undoubtedly be damaging for Native American children, as Reese rightly claims.

Creating a suitable balance between texts is no easy matter – and not one that all teachers can be expected to get right – so I agree with Reese that to create a proper environment where stereotypical attitudes are not perpetuated at the expense of more accurate and nuanced portraits, it may be necessary not only to promote counterbalancing texts by Indigenous authors, but to actively challenge the uncritical use of texts by white authors in classrooms. Yet despite my agreement with Reese on these fundamental principles I think she is both harsh and substantially wrong about Little House on the Prairie. Reese discusses two books in her paper, Thanksgiving Day by Anne Rockwell and Little House on the Prairie. It is not long into the analysis of the latter that we find the first dubious claim:

Through the characters of Laura and Pa, Wilder makes remarks that suggest a sympathetic attitude toward Native peoples and the ways they were treated. However, the predominant characterization of Native peoples is of the primitive savage.

Elsewhere in the essay, she writes:

Native children’s self esteem is far too often assaulted in their classrooms—unintentionally— when teachers or librarians uncritically share books with images of Indians as primitive savages or with other historical or cultural misinformation.

It is wrong to say that the predominant characterisation of Native peoples in Little House on the Prairie is of the savage. There is nothing frenzied or violent or uncontrolled or animalistic about their behaviour. Some latent savagery is perhaps evoked in the War-Cry episode, but only within that context. And the same goes for the entire series – some characters with racist tendencies speak of savages, but we are not shown any Native character engaging in savage behaviour. Equally, it is not true that Wilder’s overall depiction of the Osage people is of the uncultured primitive. To give some examples:

Pa, Laura and Mary visit an empty Indian camp and see evidence of their culture, including the remains of camp fires, the holes left by tent-poles, the prints in the dust left by moccasins and a leather skirt with fringes, the traces of cooking implements and – most memorably for the girls – decorative beads. Because so much of the evidence of Indian civilisation in this scene is only visible to Pa’s and Laura’s keen and sensitive eyes, and because the scene could easily have been omitted by a writer eager to portray the Natives as primitive savages, I think Laura Ingalls Wilder deserves some credit. No doubt if the Scotts had been there, they would have found everything contemptible, but Wilder does not have them there, and the scene functions as an exploration of Native culture.

When Pa meets the Osage leader Soldat du Chêne, they are unable to communicate because they have no common tongue. A racist writer intent on portraying the Osage as primitive savages would have portrayed the chief as speaking “gibberish”. Wilder has Soldat du Chêne address Pa in French, and has Pa later regret that he – Pa – has no French. Thus, the contrast is not between a sophisticated settler and a primitive native, but between a polyglot native and a monoglot settler.

In one scene, the family dog confronts an “Indian” on the trail near the Ingalls house. The Native points a gun at the dog, before Pa intervenes and drags him away. The situation safely defused, the narrative continues:

 “That was a darned close call!” Pa said. “Well, it’s his path. An Indian trail, long before we came.

An author who wanted to emphasise the savagery of the “Natives” could have chosen a different outcome. She would also not have closed the scene with an assertion of the primacy of the Native’s right to the trail.

Reese cites the “Indians in the House” chapter as exemplifying Wilder’s treatment of the Native people as primitive savages. In this scene, two Native men come into the house while Pa is absent and take food from a frightened Ma and children. Certainly the scene evokes fear in the reader, and dramatises the clash of civilisations. The “Indians” here are very much the strange and potentially dangerous other.  Reese points out the oddity of the men wearing foul-smelling skunk skins, and she has a point. She writes:

As the text demonstrates, Laura, Ma, and Pa are all repulsed by the smell of skunk musk. The Indian men are not. The subtext is that these men are different from Laura and her family. Their sense of smell is not like theirs. In the natural world, animals know that skunks smell unbearably bad, and will avoid them, but apparently these two “Indians” do not. The image of Indian men wearing fresh skunk pelts is plausible only if the men aren’t really human; only if the reader thinks them to be ignorant or animalistic, and only if we believe that they do not know how to skin a skunk without puncturing the glands that hold the musk. With this episode, Wilder tells us these Indians are less-than-human and that they have less-developed skills at trapping and preparing pelts than Pa does (in several places in the story, Pa is trapping animals and tanning hides). In short, she tells us, they are primitive.

I do not know where Wilder got the idea of having these Native men wearing skunk skins, but it does seem historically unlikely. Nevertheless, it does not follow that Wilder wanted to portray the men as primitive or not really human. I suspect she did want to accentuate their otherness for dramatic effect, and such cheap effects are not really to her credit. But neither do we have to take the dimmest possible view of the matter, especially as other portraits of the Osage are balanced and admiring. One interpretation is that the men might have been wearing the skunk pelts for the purposes of intimidation. Another is that it may have had some basis in fact as a localised custom among the Osage in that area and that this detail had – perhaps inaccurately – entered Wilder family folklore.

At any rate, the “Indians in the House” scene does stand out as one in which fear of the other is manipulated. Another such scene is the “Indian War-Cry” episode. These are ways in which Wilder’s portrait of the Native peoples taps undercurrents of white fear. But that is it: the skunk-pelt-wearing “Indians” leave without doing any real harm, and the family’s next encounter with Native culture is in their admiring visit to the ‘”Indian camp”; the next time they meet a Native person he talks to Pa in French.

In the conclusion to her essay, Reese claims:

In Little House on the Prairie, we tacitly agree that Indians were primitive and we maintain an idea that the Other is savage, to be feared.

As noted above, no “Indian” commits an act of violence or savagery in the book. Given the tensions induced by the arrival of the settlers, the reader recognises the restraint shown by the Native people. Their decision not to attack the settlers is arrived at through dialogue between the Osage and other tribes; the tense meeting between them during the “Indian War-Cry” chapter does not issue in violence.

Equally, the book showcases and is interested in Native culture within the limitations of a narrative told by a little settler girl with very restricted access to that culture.

Writing her essay as the US was fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and citing some aggressive comments made at the time with extremely tenuous links to Little House on the Prairie, Reese asks:

Is it possible that the uncritical use of books like Thanksgiving Day and Little House on the Prairie play a role in creating the conditions for conflicts like the Iraq war?

Given how peaceful Little House on the Prairie is, idle questions like this only serve to reinforce our impression that Laura Ingalls Wilder has become to her detractors a bogeywoman and a scapegoat for the historical sins of American society. In this, she herself – imperfect as she was – seems to me a good deal fairer than her critics.

The ALSC task force was duly set up and decided to survey and seek feedback from the organisation’s members and various other groups. Anonymous snippets from the responses received are supplied in the task force’s report. Not many of the arguments on either side are persuasive in the form quoted, and some are risible. Publishing the snippets smacks more of an empty gesture than a genuine act of transparency. No academic papers were put forward as recommended reading.

The task force recommended that either the name of the award be changed or that the award be “sunsetted” and replaced with a new one. They further recommended that the renamed or new award be given “for significant and lasting contribution to children’s literature through books that demonstrate integrity and respect for all children’s lives and experiences”.

The criterion that candidates for the award should write books that respect all children’s lives and experiences seems to me a good one. In the context, however, the stipulation seems a rather pointed rebuke to Laura Ingalls Wilder. As such, before delivering another kick to Wilder’s reputation, the task force should have asked themselves whether, on balance, and taking into consideration changes in intercultural awareness since the books were written, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s work could be said to disrespect the identity of any group of children. And by taking into consideration, I do not mean giving a free pass to, but giving proper weight to the ways in which the discourse and expectations around race issues have changed since the 1930s. The answer to this question, in my view, is categorically no.

It is in the use of the word “integrity”, however, that the ALSC board members show that they literally do not understand what they are talking about. Common definitions of integrity specify the quality of having strong moral principles; the state of being whole; possessing physical or moral soundness; and being honest and adhering to a code of values.

The ALSC cannot be familiar with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s work and imply – without blushing – that it lacks strong moral principles. As for honesty, even when its treatment of Native Americans is flawed, it is never scurrilous or calumnious or underhand. (If she invented the skunk skin detail as a means of demeaning the Osage, then we could say that she was underhand that one time, but I think it is much more likely that it was an incorrect story that had entered her family lore.) Neither do the books seek by sleight-of-hand to absolve settlers of their responsibility for the “ethnic cleansing” of Native Americans.

Readers of Caroline Fraser’s biography of Wilder will learn that she was an imperfect woman, but one of integrity all the same. Her failings were small, as were her dishonesties. In this whole sorry affair, which was handled with such a lack of backbone by the ALSC, and was reported on with such a lack of probity in the media, it is the moral judges of Laura Ingalls Wilder who have displayed an alarming lack of integrity.

In a joint statement by ALA President Jim Neal and ALSC President Nina Lindsay to announce the ALSC’s decision to remove Wilder’s name from the award, there is the following justification:

Her works reflect dated cultural attitudes toward Indigenous people and people of color that contradict modern acceptance, celebration, and understanding of diverse communities.

The concept of anachronistic contradiction that underpins this worldview is totalitarian in nature. Like all authoritarian ideologies, it hates the messiness of history and rejects its otherness. It will not allow the past to contradict the present without censure. What it seeks is compliance. As for old books reflecting dated cultural attitudes, that should surprise nobody. A lot has happened in the United States since the time the books were written and since the era in which they were set.

If Wilder’s books are painful to some people today – and one should not overestimate the potential of this pain, as if Little House on the Prairie was some vile racist screed and did not contain much of admiration for Native culture – it is because they contain some unvarnished truths about how settlers were and how they thought. Today’s historical novelists can deliver all this content without the pain and without the knotty ambiguities. They can align the past with our current expectations, so that we can enjoy it from a steady position of moral rectitude. But the texts of the past have their own integrity and offer us the bonus of an additional perspective on the author’s blind spots.

Because historical attitudes are dynamic, however, I would ask the ALSC the following question: is it impossible that in the future, leading Native American writers might embrace Little House on the Prairie for the integrity with which it dramatises cultural misunderstanding and hostility and for its raw depiction of racism? Might they not recognise Wilder’s attempts to be fair to others, as generations of readers have, and see that good faith as outweighing the lapses? And might they not view the current persecution of Wilder less as an enlightened defence of their sensitivities than as the benighted and heavy-handed censure of an esteemed literary forebear?

This brings us to the meaning of “tolerance”, the practice of allowing for faults and deviations and otherness. In engineering, tolerance refers to the amount of variation permitted in a specified quantity, such as the dimensions of a machine part. Within certain tolerances either side of the set value, the machine works fine. If we were to apply this concept to “racism” – a term we often view in absolute terms – and analysed Laura Ingalls Wilder’s work with a fair mind, we would conclude that its imperfections are within the tolerances we would ordinarily apply to the period under consideration.

What are libraries if not custodians of the past? I would argue that the ALA and ALSC, in not applying due historical understanding to the past, and in participating in the unfair trashing of an author’s reputation, have failed in their responsibilities. I think there is an excellent case to be made that Wilder’s books are not sufficiently inclusive and that her portrait of the past has the potential to be hurtful. (It is of course not for me to determine what people from other ethnic backgrounds find hurtful, but we can nevertheless say with some objectivity that the potential hurtfulness of the “Little House” books is limited.) As such, the books should be used with discretion in the classroom. Moreover, in the interests of promoting inclusivity, it makes a certain sense to remove her name from the children’s literature award. After all, she wrote about American history from a white settler perspective. Why privilege that perspective in the title of an award when you do not have to privilege any perspective?

Rather than soberly making this case, the ALSC initiated and oversaw a desperately unbalanced and ill-informed discussion about racism. Faced with the task of evaluating a writer’s reputation – a responsibility that only devolved to it because it had previously put the writer on a pedestal – the ALSC failed to put Wilder’s work in context or to celebrate many of its universal virtues. It failed to mention the many ways in which the work was pro-Native. It failed to make the obvious point that portraying an oeuvre as anti-black on the basis of one poor scene is exceptionally harsh. Ultimately, the ALSC showed a lack of integrity in sanctimoniously burning Laura Ingalls Wilder on the altar of puritanical liberalism.

Being responsive to concerns about inclusiveness is one thing, but the ALSC could still have defended Wilder as an author, as someone whose writing is not just some hack work to which some people are irrationally attached, but as a piece of outstanding American literature. There is a very legitimate feminist complaint that women writers are only admitted to the canon when they are lily-white and free from stain. The way the Wilder case was handled strongly feeds that dynamic. Is it not time that we began to tolerate the flawed humanity of women instead of making witches of them?

There are things about Wilder I personally dislike – not least the Libertarianism she embraced to an extent later in life under her daughter’s influence – but on the whole I think she was rather a good woman. Perhaps I am not as virtuous as library administrators, but I am not sure her faults amount to all that much. The suffering of Native Americans and African Americans has been very great, and the histories of Western settlement and of blackface minstrelsy are painful reminders of injustice. I would not expect anyone with Native or black heritage to necessarily enjoy Wilder’s novels of white settlers told from a perspective of white privilege. Their histories run up against white history too often for that. In this sense, the books are not universal.

If the ALSC had admitted that it had not really been thinking of non-white readers and writers at all when originally naming the prize after Wilder in 1954, it would have shown some honesty about its failings. Instead, it participated in the caricaturing of Laura Ingalls Wilder as a racist. In By the Shores of Silver Lake, there is a beautifully evocative scene when Laura brings her sister Carrie skating on Silver Lake in the moonlight. Being a poet at heart, Laura wants to skate on the path the moon’s reflection makes across the lake. When they have almost reached the other side, they see a wolf on top of a bank. Terrified, Laura and Carrie hurry home across the lake. Once safely inside, the family discussion goes as follows:

 “Where was the wolf?” Pa wanted to know.
“Up on the bank,” Carrie said, and Laura added, “The high bank across the lake.”
“Did you girls go clear there?” Pa asked in surprise. “And ran all the way back after you saw him! I had no idea you would go so far. It is a good half-mile.
”We followed the moonpath,” Laura told him. Pa looked at her strangely. “You would!” he said. “I thought those wolves had gone. It was careless of me. I’ll hunt them tomorrow.”

A few moments later:

“Pa!” she said in a low voice.
“Yes, Laura?” Pa answered.
“I hope you don’t find the wolf, Pa,” Laura said.
“Why ever not?” Ma wondered.
“Because he didn’t chase us,” Laura told her. “He didn’t chase us, Pa, and he could have caught us.”
A long, wild, wolf howl rose and faded away on the stillness.Another answered it. Then silence again.
Laura’s heart seemed to turn over with a sickening flop and she found herself on her feet.

Full of ambiguity and true to the confusing, contradictory experiences of being a child, the scene does not deliver a didactic message about hunting. Rather, it seeks to capture complex currents of emotion and the pangs of a little girl’s conscience through the craft of storytelling.

Laura Ingalls Wilder has proved so popular among generations of young readers not because they are sociopaths who like reading sociopathic fables – the spectre evoked by Frances Kaye – but because she captured the true psychological tensions of childhood in exciting stories from an adventurous time. She was also a magnificent poet of the prairie, even if we tend not to recognise genius when it comes in the shape of elderly ladies in rural Missouri who write children’s books.

If the ALA was a true custodian of America’s literary heritage, it would have argued that Wilder’s fair-mindedness permeates her work and her treatment of other races, and that holding up her modest failings as examples of perfidy – “racist”, “anti-Native”, “anti-black”, “apologist for ethnic cleansing” – is the opposite of what we do when we engage constructively with literature.

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s case matters for all writers of all races and genders, as there is not one of us perfect – and least of all in the cold light of posterity. True integrity would have been to recognise that.


Donal Moloney is a writer and translator from Waterford. His short stories have appeared in The Irish TimesThe Moth; Long Story, ShortVergeThe Galway Review 4Sharp Sticks, Driven NailsBoyne Berries; and Census. The recipient of an Arts Council of Ireland literature bursary for 2017, he lives in Cork City.



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