On the ALA and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award

Last week, the news broke that the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), a division of the American Library Association (ALA), voted to rename the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award the Children’s Literature Legacy Award. Created in 1954, the award recognizes the lifetime achievement of a children’s author and/or illustrator. The decision to rename the award was, according to the ALSC, “made in consideration of the fact that Wilder’s legacy, as represented by her body of work, includes expressions of stereotypical attitudes inconsistent with ALSC’s core values of inclusiveness, integrity and respect, and responsiveness.”

Many commentators have opposed the rationale underlying the decision. In a letter, written prior to the vote, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association implored the ALSC to maintain Wilder’s attachment to the prize, stating: “Her perspective provides a window into the perceptions of a young, white, female settler of the world around her in the era in which she was a child. While the works are historical fiction, they are an accurate representation of the vantage point of that time and place in history.”

It appears, however, that it is not just Wilder’s body of work that is “inconsistent with ALSC’S core values” but her “time and place in history” as well. We can judge Wilder, a white female writing in the 1930s, for not adequately transcending her history, but who among us today can claim to be free of or even to recognize all the prejudices of our own time and place? For her part, Wilder portrayed many of the nuances of her world and her characters, reflecting the complexity of her social milieu. In her novels and in her autobiography, Pa stands up for the American Indians even as his neighbors and Ma express fear and revile them. There is truth in that portrayal, if not the whole truth, and, as Pamela Smith Hill remarked on her Facebook page, “Pretending racism didn’t exist in our history is no way to prepare young readers for the racism we must combat in the 21st century.”

In trying to improve their situation, Wilder and her family were part of the westward movement that displaced the American Indians. They made human choices, based on the social norms of the time in which they lived. Carolyn Fraser puts it best: “Wilder’s family was every family that came to the frontier and crossed it, looking for something better, something beyond, no matter the cost to themselves or others” (Prairie Fires, p. 515). Fraser also reminds us that we need to deal with the truths of Wilder’s books if we wish to understand where we come from as a country (p. 508).

In defending its decision, the ALA pointed out, ironically, that the Little House books have not been banned. No, they haven’t, but there have been and will be calls for just that. In many ways, the ALA and its advocates, by removing her name from their award, have shunned Wilder rather than banned her works. So, for the Pioneer Girl Project, the response is simple. We will continue to do what we have always done. We will examine Wilder’s life and her work and explore not only her perspectives of her world but also those of the many others who inhabited it. We began this work many years ago, with John E. Miller’s article “American Indians in the Fiction of Laura Ingalls Wilder” in South Dakota History. It is better to study than to seek to erase an important legacy like Wilder’s.

Nancy Tystad Koupal

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“A Worthy Companion”: Review of “Pioneer Girl Perspectives”

When reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, one is led to believe that things happened exactly as they were written. In addition, at a speech at a book fair in Detroit in 1937, Wilder said, in reference to the most recent book published, that “every story in this novel, all the circumstances, each incident are true. All I have told is true but it is not the whole truth.” After Wilder’s death in 1957, however, readers and researchers began to discover many ways that the books were not historically accurate. That process accelerated when it was revealed that Wilder had previously written an adult memoir she called “Pioneer Girl” that publishers had rejected. The memoir was first made widely available to the public by the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch, Iowa, during the 1980s. The South Dakota Historical Society (SDHS) Press published Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography in 2014, and it quickly became a best-seller. It is now in its ninth printing; more than 165,000 copies have been sold.9781941813089

Pioneer Girl Perspectives is a collection of essays edited by Nancy Tystad Koupal, director of the Pioneer Girl Project, and published by the SDHS Press. The volume was originally meant to address how the publication of Pioneer Girl shapes our understanding of Wilder and her work. However, contributors take their considerations in a number of new directions, including the life and works of Wilder’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, the popularity of the Little House books, and the books’ literary value.

The book is divided into four sections. “Working Writers” begins by reprinting Wilder’s Detroit Book Fair speech, and then biographers of Wilder and Lane engage the different types of writing each published. In “Beginnings and Misdirections,” authors consider the history of the Pioneer Girl manuscript and the Little House books compared to other early twentieth-century children’s literature. Historians writing in the third section, “Wilder’s Place and Time,” situate Wilder in regional and historical context. The essays in the final section, “Enduring Tales and Childhood Myths,” explore a variety of literary features of the books.

As in all books of essays, some chapters are more insightful than others. Readers of this journal will be especially interested in John E. Miller’s essay describing the midwestern context of Wilder’s life and work. He argues that the Midwest is depicted in the following characteristics of the Little House books: “(1) the prominence of the land in its residents’ thinking and the centrality of agriculture in its way of life; (2) the Homestead Act and the frontier process as integral parts of its historical experience; (3) the crucial role that small towns played in its culture; and (4) the development and nurturing of specific values as a result of those cultural experiences that helped shape residents’ special identities as Midwesterners.” Paula Nelson does a thorough job placing Wilder’s views on family, women’s roles, farming, and woman suffrage into the multiple contexts of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth centuries. [Caroline] Fraser examines the use of the tale of the “Bloody Benders” in some Pioneer Girl manuscripts in order to assess Wilder and Lane’s relationship to the “yellow journalism” of the early twentieth century. Elizabeth Jameson considers how Wilder’s troubled and poverty-ridden childhood was transformed into the happy childhood of the Little House books. Finally, William Anderson gives a fascinating brief history of the Pioneer Girl manuscript between Wilder’s death in 1957 and its publication in 2014.

Overall, Pioneer Girl Perspectives is an excellent book. It’s slightly larger than a normal hardback, and the dust jacket art is beautiful. It includes many illustrations from the original Helen Sewell editions of the Little House books as well as historical photos of Wilder, Lane and others. Many essays fill gaps in Wilder scholarship or bring together what is already known in helpful ways. It is a worthy companion to Pioneer Girl on the shelves of anyone interested in the Little House books and the way that they depict the West—and the Midwest.

John Fry, Annals of Iowa

Reprinted with permission

A Wilder Conference Wrap-up

“Outstanding!” “Loved it!” “Amazing!”

Forgive us. We at the Pioneer Girl Project need a moment to toot our own horn. For the past several months, we had been working to organize and host the 2017 South Dakota State Historical Society History Conference, April 28–29, an annual event for which the society’s various programs choose the theme in rotation. This year, we chose “Laura Ingalls Wilder: A 150-year Legacy” to celebrate Wilder’s one hundred fiftieth birthday (February 7). The event was a tremendous success! Those attending represented over twenty states, and all of the contributing authors to Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder made the trip to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to be featured speakers.

In a true meeting of minds, the speakers and an audience that asked superb questions probed important topics and demonstrated that there is still much to learn about Laura Ingalls Wilder. Panelists and conference-goers discussed Wilder’s relationship with truth and whether it morphed under the editorial leadership of her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. Caroline Fraser and Amy Mattson Lauters considered the career of Lane and in turn debated how her work and experience influenced her mother—the budding novelist—or vice versa. Sallie Ketcham took a different route, examining how the fairy tale tradition and Wilder’s own familiarity with these old tales informed the development of her works. Ann Romines, Elizabeth Jameson, and Paula Nelson pointed out several commonly held misconceptions about family life, childhood, and the female experience on the frontier and explored the historical realities of the woman who shaped our understanding of this time period. John E. Miller compared Wilder to other prominent midwesterners. William Anderson treated conference attendees to an examination of Pioneer Girl’s path into print, relating his own firsthand experiences with the people and circumstances that kept Pioneer Girl semi-underground until 2014. Michael Patrick Hearn presented his observations on the changing attitude towards Wilder’s novels.

Given that nearly seventy-five years have passed since the final Little House book was published during Wilder’s lifetime, what keeps audiences captivated by her writing? Noel Silverman, representative for the Little House Heritage Trust spoke to this question in his luncheon address, “Her Stories Take You with Her.” Sharing his experience in working with Wilder’s literary legacy for over forty-five years, Silverman observed that readers discover something about themselves in Wilder’s writings. Her lasting legacy, he asserts, tells us that we can all live an adventure, learn to be self-reliant, find comfort in our families, and much more.

“Laura Ingalls Wilder: A 150-year Legacy” was a great experience. The conference focused attention on a legacy that continues to shape our understanding of the American past. Thank you to all of the speakers, attendees, vendors, and coordinators who made it possible.

—Jennifer McIntyre

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All of the conference speakers participated in the final panel, which explored the question of Wilder’s lasting legacy.

 

Sioux Falls History Conference Features Laura Ingalls Wilder, “Pioneer Girl Perspectives”

Ten contributors to the Pioneer Girl Project’s new book on Laura Ingalls Wilder will be featured at the annual South Dakota State Historical Society History Conference to be held at the Holiday Inn Sioux Falls—City Centre, April 28-29, 2017. “Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder,” edited by Nancy Tystad Koupal, gives fresh insight into Wilder’s success as the author of the Little House series. The book and the conference, themed “Laura Ingalls Wilder: A 150-Year Legacy,” commemorate Wilder’s 150th birthday, which was February 7, 2017.

SDSHS 2017 History Conference, April 27-29, Laura Ingalls WilderThroughout the event, authors William Anderson, Caroline Fraser, Michael Patrick Hearn, Elizabeth Jameson, Sallie Ketcham, Amy Mattson Lauters, John Miller, Paula Nelson, and Ann Romines will discuss topics ranging from Wilder’s collaboration with her daughter Rose Wilder Lane to her influence on our image of the frontier and her lasting place in children’s literature. Noel Silverman of the Little House Heritage Trust, who has worked with Wilder’s writings for over forty-five years, will give a luncheon address, expanding on his interview with Koupal that appears in Pioneer Girl Perspectives. A Friday night reception will include renditions of Pa Ingalls’s fiddle music and other songs of the era played by the Sergeant Creek Stringband. Conference attendees will have the opportunity to purchase and pick up Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder prior to its public release date of May 18, 2017. On Thursday, a special fundraiser will provide the opportunity to have books signed by all of the book’s contributors.

Conference registration is limited and can be completed at history.sd.gov or by calling (605) 773-6000. Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder will be available to the public for $29.95 on May 18, 2017.

A Midwestern Pioneer

When Nancy Tystad Koupal invited me to contribute an essay to Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder, I felt honored. Then I wondered, “Is there something that I can contribute that hasn’t already been done?”

becoming-liw_illusNearly a quarter century ago, while researching my first book on Laura Ingalls Wilder, I, like every serious scholar working on her, visited the Hoover Presidential Library, which houses the major collections of papers on her and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. At that time, I photocopied the drafts of Pioneer Girl that Lane had typed and sent to her editors in 1930 and 1931 (she switched agents in the middle of the submission process). I culled information from Wilder’s memoir of her childhood and used what I found in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little Town and then in the biography Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder. The information contained in those manuscripts was gold for anyone who wanted to know “what really happened” in Wilder’s childhood, and those of us aware of the material treated it as the treasure it was. Pioneer Girl provided a more detailed, nuanced, and surprising picture of Wilder than we could find anywhere else.

But now is now, and I had to come up with a novel idea for Pioneer Girl Perspectives, or so I thought, but a subject rose to the surface that I had been considering for some time: the idea of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s identity as a midwesterner throughout her life. The places she lived in and wrote about are steeped in the identity of the Middle West, and it seemed to me that that fact alone had a significant impact on her life and writing.

Reinforcing this line of thinking was the 2014 publication of a book I had been working on for over a decade and a half, Small-Town Dreams: Stories of Midwestern Boys Who Shaped America. It contains twenty-two stories of small-town and farm boys who grew up in the Midwest and whose rural boyhoods significantly shaped their identities and success as adults. The men I wrote about range from Henry Ford, William Jennings Bryan, and Carl Sandburg to Ernie Pyle, Walt Disney, and Sam Walton. My interest in the subject also stems from the fact that I am a small-town boy from the Midwest myself. In addition, the brand-new Midwestern History Association, spearheaded by a former student of mine, is directing major attention to the region. So, I decided to look at Wilder as a midwestern pioneer girl.

My chapter studies midwestern places that shaped Wilder’s life, values, thoughts, and actions through her experiences and interactions with the people who lived there. It places Wilder alongside other important midwesterners—Harvey Dunn, Frederick Jackson Turner, and Willa Cather—to deal with concepts of the frontier, land, rural values, cultural patterns, and socio-economic realities that provided the context for her life and writing. In this way, I note the supreme importance of place, in terms of the Midwest as a region, in Wilder’s work.

John E. Miller, contributor to Pioneer Girl Perspectives

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Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder edited by Nancy Tystad Koupal will be available to readers on 18 May 2017.

 

Pioneer Girl Perspectives Update

Earlier, the Pioneer Girl Project announced that Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder would be coming out in 2017, and it’s on its way—set your calendars for May 18!

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Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder takes a serious look at Wilder’s working life and at circumstances that developed her points of view. Along the way, authors William T. Anderson, Caroline Fraser, Michael Patrick Hearn, Elizabeth Jameson, Sallie Ketcham, Amy Mattson Lauters, John E. Miller, Paula M. Nelson, and Ann Romines explore the relationship between Wilder and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, as well as their path to the Little House novels. Editor Nancy Tystad Koupal also includes an interview with Little House Heritage Trust representative Noel Silverman, who has worked with Wilder’s works for over forty-five years, and annotates Wilder’s 1937 speech about the Little House series given at the Detroit book fair.

This rich source book from these Wilder scholars from across North America will also explore, among other topics, the interplay of folklore in the Little House novels, women’s place on the American frontier, Rose Wilder Lane’s writing career, the strange episode of the Benders in Kansas, Wilder’s midwestern identity, and society’s ideas of childhood.

Continue to follow the Pioneer Girl Project website for more updates.