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

The Sources

Today a copy of Barnaby Rudge arrived for me at the South Dakota Historical Society Press offices through interlibrary loan. No, it’s not my light reading for the morning coffee break. It’s for the Pioneer Girl Project. But what, you may ask, do Laura Ingalls Wilder and Charles Dickens have to do with each other? Other than their mutual status as classic authors?

(If you can guess why this book is on my desk, you’re good.)

As we research, edit, and write annotations for Wilder’s Pioneer Girl, I am impressed by the breadth and depth of background it takes to understand a life. Even a normal person’s life. For isn’t that what makes Laura Ingalls Wilder special: that for most of her life, she was not a celebrity? To her contemporaries, she was literally the girl next door (or on the next quarter section), yet as an author, she makes her readers see what is extraordinary and worth telling in the everyday lives of everyday people.

And how many details make up such a life! All the source materials for the annotations come across my desk. For the first quarter of the manuscript, I have several articles on the Osage Indians, a book on medicine during the Civil War era. Another on women’s hair ornaments, a pamphlet on public-land laws, and a serious tome on the history of Redwood County, Minnesota. And a Dickens novel.

Image from Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens

An image from an early Barnaby Rudge

We don’t know if Wilder read Barnaby Rudge, but we do know that Dickens and his work had a far-reaching effect on the popular culture of the time. In the original, unedited Pioneer Girl manuscript, Wilder says about one of her cousins: “Edith was to [sic] small to know us but she laughed at me and held out her little hands. They all called her Dolly Varden because she had a pretty dress of calico that was called that.” Not being an English major, I had no clue what this passage might mean. But Dolly Varden, it turns out, was a character from Barnaby Rudge, a flirtatious beauty who inspired a style of dress in the late nineteenth century. So even this unlikely source provides a little more insight into Wilder’s world.

Imagine writing about your own childhood. How many of the details would be obscure or incomprehensible to a reader eighty years hence? When I visited my own cousins earlier this year, I teased one of them about his Justin Bieber haircut. Someday, a remark like that will require annotation. One of the greatest values of the Pioneer Girl Project is the way in which it enriches our experience of the things that Wilder and her family, friends, and neighbors knew on a day-to-day basis.

Rodger Hartley

A Pioneer Girl’s Treasures

On my most recent visit to Rocky Ridge Farm in the Missouri Ozarks, I was once again struck by all the things Laura Ingalls Wilder had managed to save from her childhood— her sampler, her handkerchief, the slates she and Mary used when they attended school in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, even the jewel-box she describes in such loving detail in On the Banks of Plum Creek.

It’s remarkable that so many objects from her childhood survived, given how often the Ingalls family moved—from Wisconsin to Missouri to Kansas and back to Wisconsin again; on to Minnesota, then Iowa, and back to Minnesota; finally on to Dakota Territory. All these moves were made either by covered wagon or by train, which meant the family had to travel light. I suspect Caroline Ingalls supervised her girls’ packing closely, but based on accounts in “Pioneer Girl” as well as the Little House series, both the real and fictional Ma understood how important it was to make a home wherever the family settled. That clearly included letting her girls take their small but precious possessions with them from one little house to another.

Wilder and her husband Almanzo made plenty of moves too—from South Dakota to Minnesota to Florida to South Dakota again and from there to Missouri, where they lived out their lives together. And they too traveled by train, wagon, or buggy. So it’s literally a small miracle that Wilder’s jewel-box from Plum Creek days survived.

A Childlike Sense of Wonder

I’ve long assumed that Wilder saved these things because, in a childhood marked by frugality and poverty, even the purchase of those slates must have seemed like an extravagance. But I’m not sure that an impoverished childhood entirely explains why Wilder saved those treasures from her past. My father, a child of the Great Depression, grew up in an Arkansas log cabin and like the Ingalls girls, he and his sisters delighted in simple pleasures and learned to live happily with less. Yet nothing except photographs from my father’s childhood remains; he didn’t save his childhood treasures.

I suspect that Wilder kept hers because part of her never entirely grew up. Yes, like most of us, she kept important and official family documents, the papers that define a family’s history. The archives at Rocky Ridge Farm, for example, include Charles and Caroline Ingalls’s wedding license, Mary’s diploma from the Iowa College for the Blind, and Wilder’s own teaching certificates. Wilder became the family member responsible for preserving family history and documentation. But she also continued to nurture that childlike sense of wonder, a characteristic that often defines children’s book writers.

A Writer’s Ambition

Among the items Wilder saved is her essay titled “Ambition,” written when she was seventeen for her teacher, Mr. Owen, in De Smet, South Dakota. It was a piece of writing that she was proud of. Perhaps her secret ambition had long been to become a writer.

Years later when Wilder, her husband, and daughter moved to Missouri, she began to act on that ambition. Almanzo had made her a portable writing desk, and throughout the journey to Missouri in 1894, Wilder kept a diary in a small notebook of her impressions along the way. She drafted a letter home to friends and family in De Smet, and it was published in the De Smet News and Leader in August 1894. Of course, she kept the clipping with a handwritten note, “First I ever published.”

Wilder began to write her life story in 1930, two years after she and Almanzo moved into the Rock House, a gift from their daughter Rose Wilder Lane. Here Wilder wrote Pioneer Girl, as well as the first three novels in the Little House series. It’s impossible to know all the details of Wilder’s writing process, but I like to think of her at the dining room table in the Rock House, a supply of No. 2 lead pencils and a Fifty Fifty tablet from Springfield Grocer Company at the ready. Perhaps as she struggled to find the right word or to describe the sound of Pa’s fiddle, she looked across the living room and out the window at that hazy Ozark sky and found the inspiration to continue, one word at time, one memory at a time.

Pamela Smith Hill