Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Another Look at the Downfall of Once Classic Book Little House on the Prairie (A Response to my own Must NOT Read List post)

In my post from Saturday, November 29th, titled Must NOT Read List For Elementary School, I discussed a few books that have lost their cultural relevance in the United States. I scratched the surface, and the ensuing discussions that took place, both within my own page and on other pages, showed that people still have very passionate opinions about these classic books. I respect those opinions, because reading preference is, after all, a matter of opinion, and was pleased to see multiple levels of discourse occurring over what I wrote (I am a teacher after all).

Another level of this critique could take me into suggestions of other books, a suggestion I received in comments, and I do plan on moving in that direction too, but I wanted to further the discussion from that post by offering a deeper criticism.

In my first year as a classroom teacher, I inherited a large book library full of class sets that belonged to the school (a library that has since been absorbed by a "book room" open to all teachers). One of the titles on this shelf was The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare. I had a sub one day when I was out sick, and upon my return the next day, he was still in the building. This substitute teacher was a member of a Native American tribe from the northern part of the country. He told me that Speare's book is pretty much blatantly racist, and just thought I should know.

I looked a little deeper into this by researching it and reading the book. I found out that this books treatment of Native Americans was in fact not appropriate. It stereotyped Native Americans, reminded everyone of hateful attitudes towards "Indians," and presented a racially superior world view (whites as superior).

Now it's one thing to say that this book reflected the ideals of the time when it was written. OK, fair enough, I couldn't really argue with that. There's one problem here. The Sign of the Beaver was written in 1984, so explain it now. It's not a historical criticism, to argue that basically means that you haven't read the book and are just arguing for arguments sake.

This same argument is equally valid for Little House on the Prairie, a book that claims that "The only good indian is a dead indian," a book that presents a story told from the perspective of power, the white group settling west.

To choose to keep this book in the classroom, you must deal with the above argument, it's right there in front of you. When confronted with the fact that The Sign of the Beaver was a blatantly racist book, I removed it, because there is no argument to keep it there. If you say you are keeping Little House around because it offers children a chance to critique racism historically, think again, especially when some of the comments I received talked about reading it to 6 and 7-year-old kids. These children don't yet have that capacity (I don't care how advanced they are, they DO NOT have that capacity yet).

It's one thing to pull out these books in an AP English class in 12th grade, or in college, and critique it, but for children, they are not going to see that far beneath the surface, even with help from the teacher/parent.

5 comments:

ecochic said...

You give some good points to chew on here...Maybe it's my mature self looking back on my third grade self and giving myself more credit than I deserve, but I read all of the Little House books, and don't recall them instilling in me any sense of racial superiority or prejudice against Native Americans. In school we were taught about the time period in which these books took place and learned about the racism of the time. I feel like if those elements weren't present in the story, then it would lose something as a work of historical fiction. Librarian by Day posted earlier this week about how inaccuracies in character responses/language in historical fiction can make a reader "fall out of" a book. For certain, these books are not politically correct, but I think that teachers - even elementary teachers with elementary students - can engage students in ways that talk about how Native Americans were treated and why it was wrong. If kids aren't started early on these discussions, and racist remarks aren't addresses, that's how racist attitudes become implanted.

The Buss said...

ecochic,

There are some truths in what you said, especially "I feel like if those elements weren't present in the story, then it would lose something as a work of historical fiction." That is true, but I'm thinking about this book more from a cultural perspective.

Little House was written in 1935, so it's quite removed from frontier times, but it still clearly evident of the racism against Native Americans. I don't know that it would be naive to assume that Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote this series as a historical critique, because that is a common perception, but it's more likely, given the time period, Wilder's upbringing, and the content of the book, that she wrote this book from a white colonial (frontier) perspective, and it showed both the common and her biases towards "indians." No, she wasn't a bad, racist person, but these cultural perceptions still exist, especially among Natives, and still have cultural ramifications.

There's a great book out there now, by Sherman Alexie, titled The Absolutely True Diary of A Part-Time Indian, that explores the perceived inferiority of Native Americans from the perspective of a Native American, I recommend it if you are interested in digging a little deeper on this.

Marianna said...

Wow. You have definitely given me something to think about!

dot said...

Almost every time I get in a new middle reader or young adult book that shows someone in Native American garb on the cover, I immediately hop on the internet and check out the blog American Indians in Children's Literature. I've read what they have to say about lots of folks, including Laura Ingalls Wilder, and I've read whichever review it is that mentions Pa Ingall's eyes glittering something akin to Charles Manson's. I've also enjoyed Jezebel's feature called "Fine Lines", and the reader feedback for their entry on The Long Winter shows that the Little House books were still being taken to heart by young readers just a couple years ago. In reference to the line "The only good indian is a dead indian", well, I felt that the books made clear that when Ma Ingalls said that, she was overly prejudiced against them. Their interactions with the Indians in the books were both positive and negative, and although the books do have a taint of past conceptions, I would argue that of any of the old timey books, there is something lasting in the Wilder titles. I've also seen a 13 year old girl I know (admittedly, a precocious child) go through the full-on bonnet stage as a result of Little House. I've seen other little girls come into the store who've got the prairie dresses, too, and they still do love the Little House books. I don't think they're harmful enough to be relegated to the dusty dark corners, although there are still some definite discussion points to be had.

The Buss said...

dot,

You make some great points in what you said. You say that there are still children taking these books to heart to this very day, but that these books still have a place in the literary practices of children as well. I can't disagree with this, but then again, the same can be said about any book, no matter how reliced, racist, or dated it is. I could make that same argument about some of the most notorious books ever written (although I won't list them here, because that's a whole other can of worms I'm not ready to take head on just yet), because people have the right to read anything.

I think something needs to be said for the student populations reading these stories. I work in a town that has done a very poor job of making its schools equal. We definitely have rich, pre-dominantly white schools here, and very poor, run down, minority heavy schools. It is alive and well in the American Southwest. While Little House on the Prairie find find a good home in a classroom full of economically safe white children, I worry about its effects on the poverty stricken children, whether they're white or (as they mainly are) ethnic or racial minorities.

I think that's just a further discussion point more than anything else. I am going to do some light research on that topic and hopefully do a post on it soon. I appreciate what you had to say, your points are valid, I'm just trying to look at it from other perspectives.