Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Art of Historical Fiction
The Laura Ingalls Wilder Award was recently renamed the Children’s Literature Legacy Award, a remarkably generic name for such a prestigious award. A lot has been said about the change, and most that I have seen has been negative, with reactions including outrage, confusion, and diatribes on censorship. A few responses have been thought-provoking and helpful, and I’ve linked to those below.
Renaming the Wilder Award wasn’t censorship, but was it the right thing to do?
My boys and I loved the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, which seemed an accurate portrayal of the historical period through which she lived. I didn’t want to join the chorus of reactionary outrage without spending a bit of time thinking through the issues. It seemed important to find out a few things about the award, Wilder’s books, and the nature of historical fiction. Here’s what I learned.
About the Laura Ingalls Wilder / Children’s Literature Legacy Award
Who made the name change and why was it made?
The change was made by the Board of the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), a division of the American Library Association (ALA). They wrote that “Wilder’s books are a product of her life experiences and perspective as a settler in America’s 1800s. Her works reflect dated cultural attitudes toward Indigenous people and people of color that contradict modern acceptance, celebration, and understanding of diverse communities.”
What are the qualifications for the award?
On January 2, 2018, the ALSC website stated that “The Wilder Award honors an author or illustrator whose books, published in the United States, have made, over a period of years, a substantial and lasting contribution to literature for children.”
As of today, July 16, 2018, that description has been edited to “The Children’s Literature Legacy Award honors an author or illustrator whose books, published in the United States, have made, over a period of years, a significant and lasting contribution to children’s literature through books that demonstrate integrity and respect for all children’s lives and experiences.”
The difference between the two descriptions lies in the change from the word “substantial” to “significant” and in the addition of the last thirteen words, “through books that demonstrate integrity and respect for all children’s lives and experiences.” You will find relevant definitions at the end of this post.
About Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books
What is the genre of Wilder’s work?
Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote stories based upon her life, and her books are usually classified as juvenile historical fiction. Although she made generous use of her experiences and the people and places she knew, her work was not autobiography. According to the ALSC site “Wilder wrote about home and the family primarily to entertain. She was interested in providing her young readers with information on how life was lived by their ancestors. Wilder’s books were not about the country’s leaders; they were about the country’s people” (1/2//18).
When were the books written?
Wilder lived from 1867-1957, so the events in the stories take place mostly in the 1870–1880s. The books were published between 1932 and 1943, so were mostly written in the 1930s.
About historical fiction
What is historical fiction?
The Encyclopedia Brittanica defines historical fiction as “a novel that has as its setting a period of history and that attempts to convey the spirit, manners, and social conditions of a past age with realistic detail and fidelity (which is in some cases only apparent fidelity) to historical fact.”
An article by H. Scott Dalton offers a more detailed descriptions, with the helpful observation that a historian seeks to answer “What happened?” while the writer of historical fiction seeks to show “What was it like?”
So—does the award’s name change alter the value of Wilder’s work?
I don’t believe it does. Her books amply meet the qualifications for the award formerly named for her, and they are also consistent with the definition of historical fiction. The ALSC is right — her work does contain “dated cultural attitudes,” but those attitudes were consistent with the reality of the day.
Modern attitudes do reflect a great deal more sensitivity, but they would be an anachronism if imported into the world of the 1870s. It is largely because of their authenticity and vivid characterization that Wilder’s books have made a “substantial and lasting contribution” to literature. They are “true” just as all great children’s literature is true. They bring to life a time, place, and people that are long past, and allow us to live for just a moment, another life.
Placing historical fiction in context
As I read books from the settlers’ era today, I cringe when a character makes a remark such as “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.” It’s a terrible thing to say about a fellow human being. However, I also see that in Wilder’s books, that viewpoint is balanced and contradicted by more nuanced approaches from Pa Ingalls and others.
Imagine though, what it was like to be a woman settler on the plains. Most women probably didn’t have a much of a voice in whether to go, and many of the stories that were told about Native Americans were truly frightening, especially the stories of massacres of isolated settlers. Fear speaks in extremes, and I have little doubt that it played a significant part in the women’s thoughts, especially when their husbands were away from home.
My maternal grandmother remembered hearing stories from her grandmother about hiding the children under an overturned laundry kettle when the Indians would come by. Imagine how frightening that would be! Farther back in my family history, a historical marker recalls the “Hochstetler Massacre,” a tragic event that probably terrified other settlers when it occurred.
Attitudes began to changes as the situation and the times changed. A generation later, my mother was attending a small one-room schoolhouse along with Native American children. Her story, along with my grandmother’s stories, are woven into the fabric of our family, and each story has a wider historical context that we also had to learn. In the wider context, we can see reasons for fear, but also for “massacres.” Nothing happened in a vacuum, so it’s important to discover context (in this case, the systematic removal of Native Americans by the U.S. government) before assuming that events or attitudes reflect only ignorance or ill will.
Something to consider
The attitudes reflected by some of the characters in Wilder’s fiction may reflect the circumstances of the times, but they also hold up a mirror for each of us. If it seems shocking and ugly to hear a character denigrate someone by race, it’s a good time to pause and reflect on whether we speak similarly about anyone or any group in our own world. If nothing else, I hope this controversy will encourage thoughtful, contextual reading of all historic fiction and increased kindness and civility toward others.
Finally, a word from C. S. Lewis
Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook-even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it.
Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united — united with each other and against earlier and later ages — by a great mass of common assumptions.
We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century-the blindness about which posterity will ask, ” But how could they have thought that?”-lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books.
Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. (From the Introduction to On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius; paragraph spacing added for ease of reading.)
Four articles about Laura Ingalls Wilder, her work, and the name change
These articles represent a range of perspectives and are well worth reading. Not only can you gain a broader perspective on the issues involved, but you can read them as examples of how to reasonably discuss a controversial issue. Enjoy!
This thoughtful and carefully footnoted article is by Pamela Smith Hill, author of Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography. It provides a broad perspective about the issues of the time, noting that “Historical perspective gives us wisdom, understanding, knowledge, and insight — not just into the past, but into the present and future.” Seeing what has gone before can help us recognize those attitudes even when they wear a modern face. Hill writes, “Careful readers of Wilder’s work won’t find easy answers in the Little House books. But we shouldn’t expect children’s books to provide easy answers to historical issues that are complex and uncomfortable — and which should continue to haunt contemporary readers, old and young.”
This article is a bit strident, but still has some valuable insights. Two quotes: “In the 1930s, juvenile literature was in its infancy. Wilder’s work not only opened the field, it set the model for children’s literature to delve into substantive issues of great national importance, such as these questions of broken reservation treaties. This is why the Wilder Medal was established in the first place.” “Rather than being anti-Native and anti-black, Wilder’s works lead readers of all ages to ponder important truths about American history.”
Constance Grady, the author of this piece is clearly a fan of the books, but she offers some very specific insights into the issues that arise when reading these works in a modern context. She says, “As a fan of the Little House books, I think that the ALSC made the right decision. I grew up on those books, and I wouldn’t trade away the memories of their incredible sensory detail and spirited, rebellious Laura for anything. But I have those memories because I read the Little House books in a very specific context — and the more we uncritically laud Wilder’s legacy and treat her books as incontrovertible classics, the harder it is to offer that context to everyone else.”
Laura McLemore, a fifth grade teacher, reminds the reader that “to understand Laura’s story, we must understand the history behind the story.” She then shares a bit of history and discusses how she teaches the Little House books. She suggests that “rather than banning books or refusing to read them, we use them as a platform for examining the history of the United States.”
Relevant definitions (excerpted from Oxford Shorter English Dictionary, Fifth Edition)
- Substantial: Having solid worth or value, of real significance; solid, weighty, important, worthwhile.
- Significant: Important, notable, consequential.
- Integrity: The condition of having no part or element taken away or lacking undivided state; completeness. Soundness of moral principle.
- Anachronism: Something or someone out of harmony with the time.