Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Part XVIII: Little House Series' criticism

Possible Spoilers from:

Little House in the Big Woods
Little House on the prairie
Farmer Boy
On the Banks of Plum Creek
By the Shores of Silver Lake
The Long Winter
Little Town on the Prairie
These Happy Golden Years
The First Four Years

I'm sure that all Americans have heard or at least are familiar with Little House series, a story about a girl in late 19th century who was a pioneer along with her family. The books portray her struggles and lessons that she learns about growing up. We the readers also go through numerous problems that they go through, witnessing the solidarity between family members as well as community. Most of us wish that if there was something to survive from the past, it would be the quintessential and romanticized version of the pioneer life that Laura and her family experienced.

While reading the nine novels and witnessing Laura growing up and struggling with different problems, I couldn't help but be curious about the makeup of the towns portrayed along with what she might have left out. While I do agree that these are children's novels and certain things should be left out, these books celebrate the "traditional" American solidarity where everyone is white and pioneer. People of other races or religions are barely seen or mentioned, and a few books struck me as hypocritical and insensitive. I will briefly outline the history during the 1870s as I know it.

In 1865 Civil War was over and the liberty for African-American slaves has been secured, or so it seemed. In the same year as well Abraham Lincoln was assassinated and during that and next few decades the immigrating population has increased. Just like today, the "established" Americans began to gripe about the changing times about the immigrants and the African Americans getting rights. The KKK was established against African Americans, and others began migrating to different areas, perhaps being spurred by "unwelcome" immigrants. I would guess that is a reason for the Ingalls family constant moving.

Little House in the Big Woods
In Little House in the Big Woods, we first meet Laura and her immediate family, and we also meet the relatives who surround them in the Big Woods. One gets a sense of cocoon or homogeneity surrounding Laura, where she is being surrounded by everyone who is like her. New ideas cannot come through in other words. Laura feels a sense of safety and security because she is within a society where people act alike, dress alike and think alike, and where even they have the same roots and ancestry. There are no people who are different. It is also curious to note that Laura's family sounds very generous but one wonders where are strangers or people who aren't in any way related to Laura's family? Where are neighbors that don't share the same heritage or thoughts as Laura's family? Surely there are other people living in Big Woods aside from Ingalls and those they married!  Wherever they are, they're not shown at all.

Little House on the Prairie 
In the first few pages of Little House on the Prairie, we learn that Laura and her family are moving to what they call an Indian country because the woods were becoming too crowd. In other words, a foreign element was starting to invade their safety nest and thus they fled into Indian territory. In the Indian Territory, this literally becomes "us vs them", as in the settlers that we're supposed to sympathize with and the Indians and government we're supposed to dislike for causing everyone else to leave the land that doesn't even belong to them. This book was written in 1935, in the midst of Great Depression. In this book as well Laura talks about Fever 'n' Ague that her family experiences and mentions a slight update on what it might have been, while she never discusses or talks about why Native Americans were forced to march and what it could mean. In 1935, I am positive that she could have had the materials to update on what is going on! 


Farmer Boy
This book won't have as much criticism as the first two Little House books. This book does contain people outside of American race such as the two workers that Almanzo's father employs and the townspeople when all of them go out to celebrate 4th of July, but again, what about people of color or different religions? This is New York after all, the state that a lot of Jews live in, so why aren't they pictured in Farmer Boy? 


On the Banks of Plum Creek
The foreigners in On the Banks of Plum Creek  aren't portrayed well. The man who sells the Ingalls family his dug out doesn't know any English other than "Yah, yah." There is also the time when Laura had to give her doll to a little girl who happened to be a foreigner and the girl, instead of treasuring the doll, threw it outside where Laura found it in the rain. Nellie Olson also has more of a foreign sound than an American one, and for those who don't remember, she bullied Laura in the series, or else competed with her. 


By the Shores of Silver Lake
Although the books after On the Banks of Plum Creek move away from being purely for children, it is also curious that Laura tends to omit possible foreigners in By the Shores of Silver Lake, or at least she doesn't focus on them. (In Willa Cather's books, foreigners arrived to the prairie and lived there, while that part is omitted from By the Shores of Silver Lake.) There is also an offensive term in the book, or at least I believe it sounds offensive "half breed" when referring to Big Jerry who is drawn as a mysterious type figure, but also helpful very briefly. 


The Long Winter
In all honesty there is barely any criticism to this book because it focused on the winter and the town trying to survive it. Oh yes, there is that "mysterious" Native American who warns Pa and the villagers about the hard winter by using Peter Pan type language. " 'Heap big snow, big wind,' he [Native American] said...'Many moons,' the Indian said. He held up four fingers, then three fingers. Seven fingers, seven months; blizzards for seven months. They all looked at him and did not say anything. 'You white men,' he said. 'I tell-um you.'He showed seven fingers again. 'Big snow.' Again, seven fingers. 'Big snow.' Again seven fingers. 'Heap big snow, many moons.' THen he tapped his breast with his forefinger. 'Old! Old! I have seen!' he said proudly. " (61-62 of Long Winter.) By the way, I researched and there was no old Native American man in real life warning the villagers of seven months of blizzards. That depiction also sets up that Native American are something other than people. One thing I neglected to mention is Ma's attitude towards foreign women: "She [Ma] did not like to see women working in the fields. Only foreigners did that. Ma and her girls were Americans, above doing men's work." (4 of The Long Winter.) Thing is, way back then, women had no choice but to work for the livelihood to survive. The foreign women didn't have the advantage that the Ingalls family had, and I doubt many Americans trusted foreigners. 


Little Town on the Prairie 
In Little Town on the Prairie, Laura goes to work in a town to help send her older sister Mary to college for the blind. Laura's first employer is an Irishman named Clancy who is described as argumentative with the hiring lady and red-haired to boot. Although I do imagine that the scenes she describes while working at Clancy's aren't tolerable, there's an element of hostility added to the descriptions. She basically doesn't take the time to get to know her employers, nor is her outlook sympathetic or well intentioned towards the Clancy family. Her family as well doesn't talk about the family, which gives the reader stock characters instead of something complete. 


These Happy Golden Years
Although Nellie Olson isn't pleasant in the previous books and does mean things, I did feel pity for her in These Happy Golden Years, and unfortunately I didn't like Laura there, especially what she did so that Almanzo could dump Nellie Olson. I also have a hard time believing that Laura likes Almanzo as a person, and, purpotedly like Nellie, she likes him because he has Morgan horses, probably because barely any of his personality is shown in the books. Other than that this book focuses more on the happy moments of the family such as Laura working and eventually marrying, giving an idea to a cycle of sorts. 


The First Four Years
There is definite distaste and fear of anything foreign, which includes people and Native Americans. At first Laura mentions the families we never met in any previous books and how this one person from a different country borrows stuff and never returns, and so forth. The names are all foreign. Then there's a scene where Native Americans are depicted as intruders and come inside, asking Laura to be their squaw. Don't Native Americans have more respect for women than what's shown in books? "Laura had seen Indians often, without fear... The Indians came around the house to the back door and tried to open that. Then seeing Laura through the window they made signs for her to open the door, indicating that they would not hurt her. But Laura shook her head and told them to go away. Likely they only wanted something to eat, but still one never could tell.... Instead they were going to the barn- and her new saddle was hanging in the barn and Trixy was there...Trixy! Her pet and comrade!...Then Indians only stared for a moment; then one of them grunted an unintelligible word and laid his hand on Laura's arm. Quick as a flash she slapped his face with all her might... Then with signs pointing to himself, his pony, and then with a sweep of his arm toward the west, he said, 'You go-me-be my squaw?' Laura shook her head, and stamping her foot again, motioned them all to their ponies and away, telling them to go." (31-33 The First Four Years.) Although the author tries to depict herself as a heroine, for me personally she fails to do so. 


In conclusion, if the books do indeed celebrate diversity, where are foreigners or people of different faiths? Not even foreigners but what about possible African-Americans or Jews who might live in these parts? (There are Jews who lived in America since even before 1600s...) What of the poor people? I once heard that conservatives enjoy these books and I can really see why; no foreign elements just a "romantic" period of everyone being the same so to speak.

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