Judging Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House”

God knows the inner human heart of His son or daughter

Replica of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s house near Pepin, Wisconsin, where Little House in the Big Woods was set.
Replica of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s house near Pepin, Wisconsin, where Little House in the Big Woods was set. (photo: Register Files)

I grew up reading the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder (Little House in the Big WoodsFarmer BoyLittle House on the PrairieOn the Banks of Plum CreekBy the Shores of Silver LakeThe Long WinterLittle Town on the Prairie, and These Happy Golden Years, plus The First Four Years). My paperback copies fell apart from the number of times I read them, especially Farmer Boy. As I remember the descriptions of Almanzo Wilder’s mother making pancakes and donuts, preparing Sunday dinner and cooking other delicious dishes, my mouth is watering right now. The Ingalls’ family domestic adventures were less focused on food, but more fascinating as they built their homes, traveled across the country, planted their crops, suffered and survived long winters, locusts, and illness.

As I was growing up Catholic, I knew there were some things missing from the Ingall’s family life: the community of the Church, the centrality of Jesus as Savior, the sacramental view of grace and salvation. When they celebrated Christmas, for example, the birth of Jesus was barely mentioned: family, music, and gifts were highlighted, not the Gospel story.

Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, who assisted her with the structure and publication of the books, held individualistic and libertarian views emphasizing that the pioneering Ingalls family never wanted to be in debt to anyone. When the Library of America issued a two-volume, slip-cased edition of the novels in 2012 for adult readers, the publishers announced that Wilder was “a distinctive and vital voice in the canon of American literature” and that her prose was “a triumph of the American plain style.” They aren’t just for children, as I found out when I read them again without the familiar Garth Williams illustrations.


“Inconsistent With . . . Core Values”

Laura Ingalls Wilder is a popular author with museums and projects dedicated to exploring her works, her life, and her world. Her home in Mansfield, Missouri, hosts an annual festival while the South Dakota Historical Society Press publishes her annotated autobiography and other materials. A few years ago, the Historical Society could barely keep up with the demand for the autobiography, going through third and fourth printings in rapid succession.

In 1954, the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), a division of the American Library Association (ALA), established the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award to honor the lifetime achievement of a children’s author and/or illustrator. The first Laura Ingalls Wilder Award was presented to its namesake that year; Wilder died three years later, Rose Wilder Lane in 1968.

On June 23, 2018, the ALSC met and decided to remove the name of Laura Ingalls Wilder from their award and rename it the Children’s Literature Legacy Award. The media release from the ALSC and ALA noted that they removed her name because “Her works reflect dated cultural attitudes toward Indigenous people and people of color that contradict modern acceptance, celebration, and understanding of diverse communities.” While they acknowledge that her “work holds a significant place in the history of children’s literature and continues to be read today”, the ALSC found an “inconsistency between Wilder’s legacy and [the ALSC’s] core values of inclusiveness, integrity and respect, and responsiveness through an award that bears Wilder’s name.” The ALSC media release emphasizes that they don’t think her books should not be kept on ALA library shelves, read, discussed, etc., but they don’t want her name on their award as though it contaminates it.


Judging the Dead vs. Praying for the Dead

Wilder and her daughter are dead—and thus cannot defend themselves—but she still has living relatives and many fans who are saddened by this reasoning for the name change. Although the ALSC was careful not to come out and say so, it seems they and the ALA are accusing her and finding her guilty of racism, or of at least expressing racist ideas about Native Americans in contrast to the more enlightened views of our time.

This judging and condemnation of the dead for certain sins is in contrast to our Catholic view of the dead. Of our own beloved dead, we may sometimes reflect on their faults and foibles even as we remember everything we loved about them—but we don’t condemn them. We pray for their forgiveness, for God’s mercy on their souls when He judges them; we don’t presume on that mercy but we don’t presume that we know they are in Hell, either.

We pray for the Poor Souls in Purgatory, but we also call them the Holy Souls in Purgatory: they are bound for Heaven’s glory. We look for saints among the Body of Christ, and proclaim that they have interceded for us with God and thus we are assured they are in Heaven.

I think that this is the better way: God knows the inner human heart of His son or daughter; we don’t and shouldn’t pretend that we do.