Racism in the work of Laura Ingalls Wilder

This conversation is one that comes up regularly. As a historian, educator, interpreter, and lifelong scholar of Laura Ingalls Wilder, I have commented on this topic hundreds of times, and will continue to encourage intelligent, fact-based discussion rooted in the real events of United States history. In fact, a few years ago I developed an hour-long presentation entitled “Why Does Ma Hate the Indians?: Responding to Loaded Questions in First-Person Interpretation.” In it, I open discussion on the topic with a focus on how interpreters and other educators can navigate the most difficult aspects of our collective history while remaining true to the facts–not only the facts of the individual being interpreted, but also the context within which that person functioned–while facilitating essential discussion about historic issues which continue to plague our modern society.
I am of the conviction that banning work such as the Little House series of books is counterproductive. I am also of the conviction that changing Wilder’s text would be dishonest to readers and to history. Laura’s not here to make that decision whether or how to change the character as written. Remember, too, that these are novels–works of fiction–and the portrayal of the character Caroline isn’t necessarily a true representation of the real person. However, it is quite likely that many of Laura’s relatives and other people Laura knew held racist beliefs and may have acted in oppressive ways. The mere existence of the Homestead Act is proof that white supremacy was policy, and often rule of law, in the US. Millions of people were complicit, and most of them probably didn’t give it much thought in terms of the disastrous impact it had on Indigenous Americans. 
Furthermore, I am of the conviction that any reader who finds Wilder’s work too upsetting to continue reading (or sharing with others) has every right to put the book down and never look at it again. I’m never going to admonish someone for drawing the line and saying they simply cannot bear to read something that is painful to them. 
But: we who are educators, fans, and interpreters of work such as Wilder’s have an obligation to those we engage with about that work. If we are educators, we particularly owe it to those we serve to have honest, intelligent, and meaningful discourse. We simply MUST acknowledge the racist content, the events and socio-political motivations that underpin the content, and recognize the pervasive damage that resulted from those beliefs and actions in real life. Downplaying or brushing racism under the rug only serves to continue the oppression. 
Ultimately, it’s not our work to alter, and we shouldn’t change what Wilder said no matter how ugly it is. Rather, we should–MUST–be willing to hash it out. 
Believe me, I’m not afraid to say that there is a lot of ugly stuff in certain portions of the books. I discuss it regularly in my public presentations. But I still don’t think the work of any author or artist should be altered by other people. We don’t have to like the character or the narrative. But it isn’t ours to change. 
What IS ours is a duty to learn from the past and work to improve our society with a goal of achieving total equality. So let’s be honest about it, have the dialogue, and work to improve things for the current and future generations.

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/realize-classic-books-childhood-racist/

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What happens in a typical “Meet Laura” visit?

c. 1895 Summer-weight Visiting Suit, with modified "practical" sleeve on the pigeon-breasted jacket bodice. 7-gored, straight-to-bias skirt sweeps the ground and creates fullness in back without use of hoops nor bustle to create the highly-sought-after "S" shape. Photo by Connie R. Neumann.

c. 1895 Visiting Suit, with modified “practical” sleeve. Photo by Connie R. Neumann, 2012.

What is “First-Person Historical Interpretation?”

Very often, when I meet someone and the subject turns to my primary occupation, I am asked what “First-Person Historical Interpretation” means.  There are many variations in specifics, but, in general, it is the practice of taking a particular historic figure and learning absolutely everything one can about that individual, and then creating a live interpretation of that individual. These interpretations are complete with appropriate wardrobe, grooming, vernacular, and, of course, a thorough knowledge of the details of that person’s life, told from their own perspective.

If you can name any famous figure from the past, you can probably find one, a handful, or even a great many people who have studied that individual’s life and experiences extensively, and who can speak at length with some authority about that person.  As with any other topic, some scholars are more experienced than others.  Some scholars have researched and written volumes of work about their favorite person, while others have a more peripheral knowledge of the individual while retaining a great degree of contextual understanding; that is to say, their knowledge encompasses much of the wider world (region, culture, ethnicity, era, social and economic standing, or education level) in which that individual functioned.  Some scholars can claim both! Some scholars speak from their own research as well as that of others.  Some speak exclusively from their own work, some exclusively from the work of others.  Some always take on the persona of their subject, while others always speak from a third-person perspective.  Some scholars write a script for their presentations, while others work interactively and allow the audience to ask unlimited questions which direct the course of the program. Some toggle between the two approaches as the situation warrants.

Many scholars are rightly described by a combination of these features, having studied others’ work extensively while conducting their own research. Many of these scholars present in character almost exclusively, but adapt the program according to the ages, interest, and needs of their audience…and this is the best way to describe what I do.

So, what can I expect if I invite you to present a “visit” with Laura Ingalls Wilder at my event?

Expect:

~An interactive experience, wherein an adult “Laura” (a.k.a “Mrs. A.J. Wilder”) of the mid-1890s shares her experiences with the audience. This is the era when the Wilders have been married for about a decade, Rose is about 9 years old, and the family have settled on their new property, Rocky Ridge Farm, near Mansfield, Missouri.

~Research-based, factual information about Laura, Almanzo, Rose and their family and friends.

~Clarification of the differences between history and the fictionalized “Little House” series of books and other media interpretations.

~Abundant opportunities to ask ANY question you like of “Mrs. Wilder.”

~In-character answers which reflect Mrs. Wilder’s known activities, tastes, opinions, experiences, beliefs, and manners.

~”Mrs. Wilder” will be dressed in period-correct, authentic reproduction clothing, appropriate to Laura’s taste, means, activities and station in life, about 1895.

~An extensive display of relevant artifacts, including clothing, household items, books, and everyday objects, as well as some special “hands-on” items to investigate further.

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This reticule is hand-made of black silk, with a pink silk/cotton blend lining and a 1-3/4″ pink silk edging inside the opening. The drawstrings are black silk petersham (aka “grosgrain”), and the design is a hand-painted wild roses motif. The outer dimensions of the reticule are approximately 9″ wide x 10″ high. I acquired it in Northwood, New Hampshire, in 2009. It is approximately 130 to 140 years old. Photo c. 2009 by Melanie C. Stringer.

What program topics do you offer? Will you customize a program for my group?

I have several topics from which you may choose, and I regularly design new programs to suit the needs of individual venues.  If you have particular goals in your school curriculum, want to explore a topic related to your library or museum programming, or your private organization has a key interest in a particular aspect of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life, work, and experience, I can accommodate you.  Here are my three most popular programs:

Meet Laura Ingalls Wilder, LLC/Dakota Yankee Research

Program Descriptions* 

~”A Yankee Woman is a Curiosity”

While “Up-North Gal” Laura may have grown up all over the west, her family is deeply rooted in their Yankee heritage, dating back to the 1620s in Massachusetts!  As a married woman, Laura has lived as far south as the Florida panhandle and only recently moved to the Missouri Ozarks. Learn about the cultural differences and similarities between pioneers of the West, their folks “Back East,” and several places in-between.

~”Look How Far We’ve Come”

As the 19th Century draws to a close, Laura compares her experiences with a woman’s opportunities in the days of her Ingalls and Quiner grandmothers. Laura discusses the many advances women have made in just a few generations. As a mother, Laura observes women rapidly gaining more social freedom and political clout, including members of her own extended family. This prompts her to wonder, “What will the future hold for Rose?”

~”This Wonderful Modern Age”

Did you know that Laura followed the daily news very closely? Ask her about it! The Ingalls and Wilder family were voracious readers, and interested in gaining education throughout their lives. In this visit, Laura will offer a glimpse of the events and questions she finds most pressing in the Gilded Age of 1890s America.

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Playing in the overgrown field on a balmy March morning...showing off the (reproduction) c.1896 Ulster coat, tailored of a navy herringbone pattern wool/cashmere.  Photo copyright Gregory P. Stringer/Dakota Yankee Research, 2013.

Playing in the overgrown field on a balmy March morning…showing off the (reproduction) c.1896 Ulster coat, tailored of a navy herringbone pattern wool/cashmere. Photo copyright Gregory P. Stringer/Dakota Yankee Research, 2013.

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Wading in the real Plum Creek of Laura’s childhood, on the former property of Charles Ingalls family. The outfit is a late 1880s calico everyday suit, black print on a brown field. The skirt is a gathered dirndle with ruffled overskirt. Photo by Chrissie H. Velaga, 2010.

What if I want you to do a different kind of Meet Laura program from what you list here?

This is just a partial list of available programs. If you would like a program tailored to your specific curriculum, group, or venue, please inquire.  All requested topics considered. In the past, I have tailored programs for a wide diversity of groups, such as: a group of teachers who wanted Laura to help their 3rd-graders learn about overland migration and wagon travel, an antiquarian booksellers association interested in how I use period books to round out my research and enhance presentations, a community group that wanted to explore the Homestead Act and its impact on current land use, and a private organization which wanted to understand the Ingalls and Wilder connections with the Scottish Rite Free Masons and the Order of the Eastern Star. Don’t be shy–If you can think of a topic, I can relate it to Laura!

Please note:  While every attempt is made to stick to the program topic of your choice, due to the highly interactive nature of the program, many presentations will include elements of all of the above descriptions, as well as other topics, according to the questions asked by audience members.

No matter what topic you choose, or how the audience questions tend, every Meet Laura Ingalls Wilder program offers a Research-Based, First-Person, Interactive History lesson to students and Wilder fans of all ages. All programs feature original research, hands-on artifact displays, period-authentic clothing and much more. Presentations are available year-round, across the United States and Canada.

What if I want something more general in nature?  

I specialize in American Cultural and Social History, with a particular focus on Westward Migration, education, regional culture (especially New England, Upstate New York, and the Midwest), historic childrearing practices, and the occupations and opportunities of women and children in America from Settlement to ~1950.  Additionally, I offer a tutorial of Victorian clothing, including the design, purpose, use and standards of proper dress in the late 1800s, from corset to collar.  (Instruction in corset lacing at no extra charge!)

Tell me what you’d like to learn about, and I will design a program suited to you. I’m always up for a new challenge, and no event is too big, too small, nor too far away! For further information, or to inquire about booking a program, please contact me:

Melanie Stringer, Historian

Meet Laura Ingalls Wilder, LLC / Dakota Yankee Research

603-867-5320

info@meetlauraingallswilder.com

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On the porch of the farmhouse, birthplace of Almanzo Wilder. The outfit is an 1891 visiting suit with high-waisted box-pleated skirt and close-sleeved basque. Photo copyright 2011, Melanie C. Stringer.

What’s New? Re-Reading and Re-Watching Little House on the Prairie.

Just a few pieces of my Laura-related swag.  The book was made by a little girl I met at Almanzo's birthplace, The Wilder Farm in Burke, New York.  She illustrated several scenes from the first 3 books in the series.  Meanwhile, many people who attend my first-person educational history programs, which feature a "visit" with an adult Laura circa 1895, ask questions that are clearly related to television episodes and have nothing to do with the books...

Just a few pieces of my Laura-related swag. The book was made by a little girl I met at Almanzo’s birthplace, The Wilder Farm in Burke, New York. She illustrated several scenes from the first 3 books in the series. Meanwhile, many people who attend my first-person educational history programs, which feature a “visit” with an adult Laura circa 1895, ask questions that are clearly related to television episodes and have nothing to do with the books…

I found this blog entry today:  Stories I’m Reading: Little House On the Prairie  and it got me to thinking just how readily every type of media can lead readers and viewers to hold some false impressions about everything from history in general to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s specific experiences. The blogger, Kim, like many of us Laurati, first knew LIW because of the TV show. Now an adult, she is reading Laura’s classic series for the first time and was shocked to find the Ingalls didn’t spend all of Laura’s childhood in Walnut Grove! On the other hand, many readers fell in love with Laura’s books first and came to the show later, if at all. I am always curious what people think of the many differences…or do they notice?

When I was very, very small, my mother let me stay up late to watch Little House on the Prairie because it was one of the few shows which featured a lot of female characters and was not too “grown-up” for a little girl.  I learned to read when I was given a copy of LHOP, and, holding my finger under each word of the sentence, one-at-a-time, my father helped me parse the syllables into an intelligible story.  He explained the foreign concepts of hunting or making cheese.  He drew pictures to make sense of the parts I couldn’t imagine, like building a door for a log house in Kansas. I knew the books and the show were very different, and my parents often pointed out anachronisms in dialogue or situations of the 70s Hollywood production.  But, they recognized the merits of the attempt at making a period of history and a former way of life accessible to a modern audience.  Sometimes the show succeeded, other times…well, let’s just say it didn’t always feel quite real.  But, it inspired me to dress up, play at living in another time and place, and, most importantly, LEARN about that other time, and place, and the other parts of life that the show–and even The Books–did not.  And, for that, I am grateful.

Me@RRFarmJuly2011.FrontPorch.FULLimage.DSCN2673

My visit to Rocky Ridge Farm, July 2011. Seeing Bessie and Manly’s final home, so lovingly created by their own labor over more than a decade’s time and from materials culled from their own land, brought a new level of meaning to my lifelong attachment to the Ingalls and Wilder families.

What has your Laura Ingalls Wilder experience been?  What caught your attention, and what do you wonder about?

Tell me your story…