When my daughter was eight years old I read to her, every night at bed time, all nine Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House books, marking my own probably hundred and twelfth reading of them. No joke. As a kid I was, and still am, kind of obsessed with them. I re-read them all every year, just because. So now my kid is eleven and we’re reading them all again, and it’s a completely different experience. She’s much more cognizant and sad about the financial repercussions of each failed crop. (Grasshopper plague! Blackbirds! Fire!) She’s super curious and sympathetic about Mary’s blindness and what it means for her future, like can she still get married or teach and all that, and how does fever ‘settle in Mary’s eyes’? She points out that sure, Almanzo risked his life outrunning a blizzard to get wheat for the starving townspeople during The Long Winter, but his main motivation wasn’t totally altruistic – really, he’s doing it to save his own seed wheat, hidden in the wall.
But most of all, my kid is now, more than when she was younger, super horrified by the oft-depicted blatant racism.
“Oh, my God!” she cringes, every time Ma wearily expresses the notion that "The only good Indian is a dead Indian". These are books written about the late nineteenth century white expansion into the American west, from the narrative point of view of a white girl and her family, so sure – those unsettling (to put it mildly) details are in there. And while I can confidently say I would not have enjoyed these books were I an American Indian or if I were black, and my enjoyment makes me feel super creepy and guilty a lot of times, I can also say that these awful parts of the books are historically accurate and for my kid they are at once confusing, infuriating, and effectively thought provoking.
Wendy McClure (an amazing editor and author who wrote one of my very favorite books, a memoir called The Wilder Life) summed up one of the most ick-tastic chapters (and one of the grossest Garth Williams illustrations in the series) in this re-cap of chapter 21 of Little Town On The Prairie. This is from the website Beyond Little House:
“Ma buys her half a yard of beautiful brown velvet, and so on Saturdays Laura and Mary Power work their hats, and Mary’s hat is blue, and Laura’s hat is silky and soft and tawny and THEN OMG EVERYONE IS IN BLACKFACE.
Okay, maybe I skipped a few things there.
It’s just that nothing quite prepares you for page 258, otherwise known as The Uh-Oh Page, which has the Garth Williams illustration of the surprise minstrel show performance (which includes Pa!) at the final town Literary. But hey, there it is. I think there’s a tendency to forget that The Uh-Oh Page and its corresponding scene even exists, especially if you had no idea what minstrel shows were when you first read the Little House books. I’m pretty sure that as a kid I stared at The Uh-Oh Page and thought something like, “So Pa’s a… black clown?” and shrugged, because I just didn’t get it. But it’s that adult knowledge —understanding what the painted-face “darky ” represents in our culture—that really puts the uh-oh in The Uh-Oh Page.
But after that initial jolt, the book does a pretty good job of negotiating that sticky territory between the way modern readers view these blackfaced folks and how the people of De Smet would have seen them. Minstrel shows, after all, were one of the most popular forms of theatrical entertainment in the 19th century, and the book manages to convey the excitement—a big-city-style spectacle appearing suddenly in a Dakota schoolhouse!—while wisely omitting some of the particulars. “When the dancing stopped, the jokes began,” reads the narrative. Uh, do you really want to hear those jokes? Noooo, and the book doesn’t go there, either, thank goodness. At the same time, the Garth Williams illustration allows us to see what minstrel shows were all about and reminds us that the Little House books took place in American history and not some pristine and politically correct prairie.
Still, I don’t envy anyone who has to explain The Uh-Oh Page to their kid: “Sometimes people dressed as, um… ‘black clowns.’ But they don’t anymore! So don’t ever dress like that!” Parents, how do you cope?”
Seriously. How does a parent cope? Here’s how it went with my kid; when she was eight, the words and pictures creeped her out and made her mad - it’s harder for a third grader to grasp time passage and cultural morays and all that. She just knew how jacked that crap was, being the only asian kid in her class at school and often subjected to racism herself. But now that she’s eleven and has studied the California Missions (Read: Genocide) and the Civil War and slavery and the trail of tears and comes home from school depressed all the time, what the Uh-Oh Chapter now makes her feel is totally confused.
“They talk about what a great president Lincoln was,” my kid says, “Pa brings it up like three times. Lincoln said black people were humans, just like white people. That was his whole thing.”
“Yeah,” I say. “I know.”
“And when they were alone in Indian Territory and everyone was passed out and hallucinating with the Fever ‘N’ Ague a black doctor saved them – he saved their lives, all of them.”
“Yeah,” I say. “Right.”
“So then why….how can they understand black people are doctors who save their lives but then they do the blackface thing?”
Dude. I don’t know. I tell her it’s easier to abuse people when you convince yourself they aren’t actually people. Blackface does that real well. (Like how people call dead cows ‘beef’ and ‘leather’ so they can eat and wear them without the inconvenience of guilt.) We talk about how racist crap continues today all over the world, and definitely in this country. My own great grandfather lived in the Ozarks and was some kind of low-ish ranking Klan Wizard. When classmates pull their eyes down and ask her if she loves chow mien my daughter knows what stupidity is. (And p.s. she’s not even Chinese.)
Obviously what the Little House books have given us is a perfect opportunity to talk about this mess, how things were, how they are still, how things change or don’t and why, and most of all how we, each of us on this planet, can live our lives with intelligence and bravery and grace, how we can conduct ourselves in a way that pulls the tide away from ignorance, and toward a world where a David Duke could never possibly be elected governor of any state ever again - not even Louisiana. In Laura’s time in America, we know women were pretty much screwed, LGBT people would not have been treated as human beings, let alone be slowly gaining their entitled basic civil rights. Barack Obama could not ever have been elected president. Of course, there’s still a ton of white supremacists in America (And don’t get kidnapped here if you’re not a cute white girl or no one will care), Mexican Americans are being asked for their papers and holy crap are you kidding me NFL, Washington Redskins? D.C. is still the nation’s capitol, right? Gah.
I understand I’ve got a privileged lens through which to view these books as a whole without losing my nut in rage – even though, as a decent person, I probably should.
Except the books were written honestly, not as a meditation on how the world should be, but how it was. So truthfully, I’m glad it’s there in Laura’s books. All of it. My daughter knows were she to live in Laura’s time on the prairie in America she would have most likely been a servant on the railroad or down in a coal mine. But she’s here now. And now she can wear a bonnet, and pretend to churn butter and work sums on a slate and pretend to be travelling west by wagon when we camp. Because now is different. And for all the horrible things in the world, some things are better. Because people were brave and made them better. And we must be the people who keep making them better now. As much as we can. Every day.