In American folklore, few stories are more iconic than that of plucky frontier girl Laura Ingalls Wilder. Her story has been central to the Little House on the Prairie novel series, focal point of two television adaptations and even celebrated during biennial LauraPalooza conventions.
Yet despite her fictionalized depictions of pioneer life “remaining firmly embedded within North American culture,” problematic aspects exist within the novels, most of them written/published in the 1930s and 1940s, and should not escape examination, explained Arts & Humanities professor Miranda Green-Barteet.
Rather than dismiss those concerns as mere artifacts of their time, Green-Barteet and other scholars have written Reconsidering Laura Ingalls Wilder: Little House and Beyond, published by University Press Mississippi and released this month.
The book’s 14 essays examine Wilder’s personal politics; the role of Plains geography in inspiring strong women authors and their characters; critique two dozen Little House spinoff novels; and note how the series has contributed to popular culture and tourism in Wilder-related locales. They examine Wilder’s novels, journalistic writing, letters and Pioneer Girl autobiography and her connections to truth, the American Dream, diverse cultures and American literature.
“This is the only critical collection of essays that focuses on her entire body of work,” said Green-Barteet, who served as editor, along with Kansas State University professor Anne K. Phillips.
A professor in both English and Writing Studies and Women’s Studies and Feminist Research, Green-Barteet is a recipient of Western’s Marilyn Robinson Award for Excellence in Teaching and specializes in young adult literature and 19th-century American literature written by women. As part of the Society for the Study of American Women Writers in 2015, she organized a conference of scholars to examine various aspects of Wilder’s work. That became the genesis of these essays.
“I read Wilder as a girl. I loved her books. I read them over and over and over again,” she said.
But as an adult reading them to her then-5-year-old son, she found herself skipping parts and correcting the historical accuracy of others. She soon realized it was time for a closer look.
“It occurred to me then, and with my own background in critical race theory, that we had to focus on all aspects of her work. How do we balance the positive aspects of these books with the very negative representations of Indigenous Peoples and the representations of white colonizer-settlers?”
One example: In at least five of the books, Ma comments, “The only good Indian was a dead Indian.”
That line is analyzed in an essay by Indigenous scholar Waziyatawin Angela Cavendar Wilson, who said Wilder’s narrative “transformed the horror of white supremacist genocidal thinking and the stealing of Indigenous lands into something noble, virtuous and absolutely beneficial to humanity.”
A year ago – citing Wilder’s complex legacy on inclusion, integrity and respect – the Association for Library Service to Children renamed its Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal to the Children’s Literature Legacy Award. That change angered many who continue to revere the series’ tales of the pioneer girl’s experiences as part of a homesteader family in America’s Midwest across two decades starting in 1869.
Green-Barteet hopes this new book will add fresh perspectives and will have a respectful reception at a booth during LauraPalooza 2019 in Wisconsin, an event that attracts historians, literary scholars and fans alike to the Wilder legacy.
“People have a hard time, rightly or wrongly, being critical of things that meant a lot to them as children. Wilder fans in particular – they call themselves ‘Bonnet-Heads’ – have an affinity for Wilder and for what they see as her legacy.”
But, she said, fans sometimes forget these are fictional works; they may have been based on autobiographical events but the author’s novelization of them gave her latitude for an independent voice.
“I hear all the time: ‘The books are just a product of their time.’ I find that to be historically inaccurate.”
Green-Barteet noted other 19th-century authors and activists called out racism, argued against displacement of Indigenous Peoples, wrote lengthy arguments for to abolish slavery and advocated for women’s suffrage.
“While there is no doubt that aspects of Wilder’s works are deeply problematic, there is also little doubt that Wilder and her works continue to capture the imagination of readers of varied ages and backgrounds,” the editors write in their introduction.
Green-Barteet recommends readers pick up Indigenous author Louise Eldrich’s Birchbark House children’s series, novels that highlight life along the same historical timeline through the eyes of an Ojibwe girl.
But she doesn’t recommend the Wilder books be shelved or censored. On the contrary, she hopes they are read with context, awareness and nuance.
“We can acknowledge its enduring appeal for many readers but we also must interrogate it, delineate its limitations, enhance the conversations that scholars, teachers and fans are having about it, and place it in context with other voices and works that can bring into focus the larger truths of our history,” Green-Barteet and Phillips write.