The longer a book is read and treasured past its publication date, the more likely it is to outlast its cultural context and outstay its welcome.
Such romantic visions of life as it once was, especially as articulated by white people, tend to have some problems. Think of the morally questionable popularity of plantation weddings and antebellum style, which harken back to a society in which wealthy whites lived a life of luxury supported by the backbreaking enforced labor of enslaved black workers. Those Southern-rose visions can be edited to remove the slavery that made it all possible, but the existence of that nostalgia rests on the existence of the atrocity.
The pioneers, too, are a romantic vision. The triumph of the human will over innumerable perils, stalwart pursuit of westward progress. Except, of course, that this romantic vision also rests on the back of something far less pretty: the systemic enforced migration and genocide of American Indian peoples who lived all over the continent.
As Pa, Ma, Mary and Laura struggled to survive in the face of relatively unbroken wilderness, pressing deeper and deeper into uncharted territory every few years, they were part of a movement that was displacing the people who lived there. Ma’s hatred toward the Native Americans they encounter is more shocking to read as an adult, but Pa’s forbearance toward them, his explanations to Laura of their culture and humanity, ring slightly false coming from someone participating in their displacement. (The Ingalls family actually homesteaded on the Osage Indian reservation in Kansas, though they did eventually leave when requested by the government; their time in Kansas formed the basis for Little House on the Prairie.)
The overall picture the books paint of the American Indian people isn’t overtly hateful, but of its time: distorted, stereotyped, and placed through a lens of white people’s best interests and wants. Given the seeming moral balance provided by fearful Ma and magnanimous Pa in the books, it’s strange to reread the books as an adult and suddenly see that this balance is all out of whack. The simple tales of a little pioneer girl running free through the big woods don’t look innocent anymore, and it’s more disturbing to realize that it’s so insidious, there was a time that it did seem innocent and fairly drawn.
All those books I couldn’t wait to share with my own (hypothetical) daughter one day, starting with Little House on the Prairie, seem suspect now, like time bombs that have yet to go off. Is Anne of Green Gables riddled with hate? What about Little Women? Even looking at these books no longer appeals in the same pure way — and I definitely don’t think I’ll casually pluck Little House off the shelf to read aloud to my own little ones.
Maybe Laura Ingalls Wilder and her beloved children’s books won’t stay on the classics shelves forever, but it’s the fact that they were there at all that allowed readers like myself this painful revelation. The longer a book is read and treasured past its publication date, the more likely it is to outlast its cultural context and outstay its welcome. The Little House books bring a childhood fantasy to life so vividly that they’re still around, today, for us to realize how troubling that fantasy really is. That may not be the birthday present Laura would want, but it’s something.