Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Little Context on the Prairie

The Association for Library Services to Children, horrified by what they consider the retrograde racial attitudes of Laura Ingalls Wilder, have changed the children's literature prize bearing her name to the Children's Literature Legacy Award.
The Association for Library Services to Children (ALSC) decided on June 23 to strip Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name from an award established in 1954 to honor “the lasting contribution which [her] books have made to literature for children.” The telegram Wilder received on her 87th birthday informing her of the award continued, “In future years the award will be made in your name and be called the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award.” Overturning 65 years of honoring the most significant legacies in children’s literature with an award named for Wilder, the current ALSC noted “anti-Native and anti-Black sentiments in her work” when it called for a review of the award in February 2018. The decision this week followed that review process. “This decision was 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,” according to the statement on the organization’s website. 
The ALSC’s renaming of the Wilder medal to the Children’s Literature Legacy Award erases the fundamental role Wilder played in creating the genre of juvenile fiction. Wilder’s work and its lasting impact on every generation of children since the publication of Little House in the Big Woods (1932) served as the impetus for the establishment of the award. It would be more honest for the ALSC to just scrap the award altogether and start afresh. The stated “core values” are vague enough to allow the group to take this award in any direction the wind happens to be blowing. What is “responsiveness” in children’s literature, anyway? Responsiveness to what? And just who is included when “inclusivity” is touted as a core value? Whatever happened to children’s literature that told good stories that sparked children’s curiosity about history? Wilder’s books have certainly done this and more, inspiring a multitude of related works, both fiction and non-fiction. 
...Rather than being anti-Native and anti-Black, Wilder’s works lead readers of all ages to ponder important truths about American history. The award created in her honor encourages endeavors in children’s literature equally devoted to depicting essential aspects of American life. Stripping Wilder’s name from this award removes all meaningful context from the medal. Moreover, it sullies Wilder’s literary reputation and creates a slippery slope for excising all literature that doesn’t adhere to a strict definition of “inclusivity,” whether or not that inclusivity accurately reflects American history. As Caroline Fraser writes about Wilder’s Little House series, “The truth about settlement, about homesteading, about farming is in there, if we look for it — embedded in the novels’ conflicted, nostalgic portrayal of transient joys and satisfactions, their astonishing feats of survival and jarring acts of dispossession, their deep yearning for security. Anyone who would ask where we came from, and why, must reckon with them.”

The fact that the award now bears no author's name is perhaps indicative that the current field of children's literature has produced no author of the stature and popularity of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Enough atrocities were carried out on the American frontier that settlers and natives both had good cause to hate each other. Several years ago I wrote about some context for Ma's distrust of Indians in a post called A Fate Worse Than Death:
To undertake to narrate their barbarous treatment would only add to my  present distress, for it is with feelings of the deepest mortification  that I think of it, much less to speak or write of it. 
Rachel Parker Plummer, Rachael Plummer's Narrative of Twenty One Months Servitude as a Prisoner Among the Commanchee Indians
Previously we were inhabiting the sunnier world of children's literature, as evidenced by Darwin's post on re-reading Laura Ingalls Wilder, but now his leisure non-fiction reading has been increasingly grim, which is to say he's reading history. Atrocities in the Ukraine, mayhem in the trenches, malfeasance during the Spanish Civil War: these are the pleasantries that make for charming conversation here. Every time I see his current read, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, sitting on a table, I give it a wide berth because I don't want it to grab me and forcibly imprint the horrors of collectivization and famine and the killing fields of Europe on my brain. I am squeamish, and I make no apologies for it. History is a catalog of man's inhumanity to man, and were I not Catholic, I believe it would drive me to despair. 
It makes one long for the simpler days of the Laura Ingalls' prairie, except that the book Darwin is listening to give us new insight into the hatred of Ma for the Indians which, in these tolerant and less turbulent times, seems like a throwback to an earlier age of prejudice. Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History is about the last chief of the Comanches and the drive in the 1870s to defeat that nation and make the frontier safe for white settlement. The havoc wreaked by the Comanches and the Texas Rangers in turn would have been current events to the Wilders, though they were dealing with less martial Osage tribe in Kansas. However, it's possible that what settled in Ma's psyche was not Quanah Parker's present warfare, but his family history. 
Quanah Parker was a half-breed, the son of a Comanche chief and a white woman, Cynthia Ann Parker. Cynthia Ann had been captured in 1836 at the age of nine, in the Fort Parker massacre, along with her brother; her 17 year-old cousin Rachel Parker Plummer and her one-year-old son James Pratt Plummer; and her aunt Elizabeth Duty Kellogg, in her thirties. Although the others were ransomed at various times, Cynthia Ann refused to leave the Comanches. Adopted into the tribe and now called Nautdah, she was by all accounts happily married to Peta Nocona, an influential chief and one of the leaders of the Fort Parker massacre, and bore him three children. In the attack in which Peta Nocona was killed, Nautdah and her daughter Topsannah were recaptured and returned to the Parker family. This was no idyllic reunion: the 34-year-old woman remembered little of her life before the Indians and longed to return to her tribe, but her escape attempts were all foiled. After the death of little Topsannah from pneumonia, Nautdah seemed to lose the will to live. Six years later, she starved herself to death. 
A melancholy narrative, but one which finds its counterpoint in a book written by Cynthia Ann's aunt, Rachel Plummer. Rachael Plummer's Narrative of Twenty One Months Servitude as a Prisoner Among the Commanchee Indians, one of the first published accounts of Indian captivity, was written in 1838, shortly after she was ransomed. At home and abroad, readers were agog at her detailed descriptions of Comanche life, psychology, and, of course, savagery. 
The aftermath of the Parker raid was horrific: the captives were dragged naked,  beaten savagely, and the two adult women were gang-raped in view of the  children. Elizabeth Kellogg was sold to another tribe and ransomed after three months, but Rachel Plummer endured 21 months among the Comanche. Her son was taken from her after her captors realized that he'd been weaned, and she never saw him again. Rachel was pregnant when captured, and when her baby was six weeks old, the braves decided that he was slowing her down too much. They threw him repeatedly in the air and let him dash on the ground, only letting his mother go to him when it seemed he was dead. When she was able to revive him a bit, they tied him to a horse and dragged him through the cactus until his tiny body was torn to pieces. After months of brutal slavery, Rachel snapped and nearly beat to death one of the women tormenting her. To her surprise, this act of vengence won her the respect of her captors, and her lot improved as she began to return blow for blow. 
Rachel Plummer was finally ransomed, but her return to her family was bittersweet. Her once beautiful red hair had turned gray; she was emaciated and scarred. Her wrists bore the marks of the leather thongs which had bound her in the first days of her captivity. She was tortured by thoughts of her sons, especially whether her baby might have been spared if she had lashed out earlier. She died a year later, exhausted from her sufferings and another childbirth, mourning to the end the loss of her little James Plummer, who would not be ransomed for two more years. She was 20 years old. 
Rachel Plummer's ordeal was not unique, and stories of Indian captivity must have been vivid in the minds of pioneers such as Charles and Caroline Ingalls as they must have wondered whether each day could lead to a fate worse than death for themselves and their children. 


Ladyhobbit said...

Ok, I'll be the first to comment. This is an excellent post, and does indeed present much-needed context. Thank you!
When I was in my twenties, I read a book about Pennsylvania history, and what I read haunted me for years: the story of the torture-murder of a trapper by a Native American tribe. The man had done nothing wrong and was merely the designated victim for deeds done by others. To this day I can hardly stand to think about what was done to him.
Of course, as you note, there were plenty of atrocities done by both sides to create fear and distrust.
Children are usually taught now about the unfair treatment of native Americans, and rightly so, but they are not taught about captivity narratives because these stories are so disturbing. However, the result, whether intended or not, is that many adults are quite unable to give any context to historical incidents.
Knowing about incidents like the ones you narrate certainly takes some of the fun out of "Dances with Wolves," but adults should be capable of understanding fallen human nature as it applies to all groups of people.
I remember that Chesterton once said that the fact that the explorers of the Americas were bad men did not make the indigenous peoples into saints.

Son Mom said...

Have you had a chance to read Caroline Fraser’s new biography of Wilder, the one the article references? The title is “Prairie Fires” and it won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 2017, I think. It was really excellent, I thought, though the later oart was depressing as Rose Wilder
Lane was truly a rather horrible person. It was no hagiography, but I thought a great description of very real people, and really brought home how ground-breaking Wilder’s writing was. It is fascinating the degree to which Rose especially encouraged the editing of the books to emphasize her extreme libertarian views - portraying the family as icons of self-reliance, and editing out all mentions of government programs, Pa’s populist views, and the essential truth that both Pa’s and Almanzo’s farming attempts failed in the end. Many aspects of Laura’s life were even more interesting in real life than in her books, I thought!

mrsdarwin said...


The history of man's inhumanity to man is so hideous. I think that people get trapped in a binary mindset in which the opposite of "Noble Savage" is "White Man's Burden". The truth is that both settlers and Indians did horrible, horrible things to each other -- and not just in organized torturings, such as the case of the North American Martyrs (more hideous history), but in the more one-off rapes, murders, burnings, thefts, and other crimes that make people hate each other.

One of the worst things I've ever read was the account of a lynching in 1890s Texas. A whole string of escalations finally came down to the torture-burning of a black man in a small town. The account was meticulous and nauseating, something I'll never forget. How could any black person witnessing it trust any white person again? And yet the crime he'd committed for which the family was taking revenge was horrible too.. Of course, many lynchings were of people who'd committed no crime -- innocent victims, as you noted, becoming the scapegoat for the hate of a community.

Jesus, have mercy.

mrsdarwin said...

Son Mom, yes! I really enjoyed Prairie Fires. You can't blame a child's entire personality on her parents, but watching the unpleasant and unethical person that RWL became, you do wonder about Laura's family history. I was struck by Fraser's thesis that LIW really downplayed the hardscrabble, slightly-shady side of Pa's character as he tried to keep his family afloat. Grinding poverty and subsistence living wear a person down, and though I love love love the Little House books as fiction, I can really believe that Laura softened a lot of the rough edges.

I'm curious to read some of RWL's stuff, but it sounds like she was a much more talented editor than writer.