I am so very excited to share with all of you a conversation with the author of the brand-new historical fiction title Caroline: Little House Revisited ~ Sarah Miller very graciously agreed to answer all of the questions I had for her about Caroline Ingall’s prejudices toward American Indians. This is one of my very, very favorite things about being a book reviewer – getting to go deeper into stories and actually have these conversations with authors!
Please head over to Goodreads to check out my 4-STAR review of this novel – it was out on September 19th, 2017 from William Morrow!
Author Q&A With Sarah Miller
We decided to leave this conversation pretty much intact from our email back-and-forth since I love how Sarah takes my initial rambling thoughts and massively expands upon them. So many things for us all to think about on this topic! Okay, here it is:
I am so so happy to have had a chance to read an early copy of Caroline – thanks again! And thanks for being willing to discuss with me.
I’m really in the pondering stages with my thoughts on the racism angle, and have you to thank for inspiring me to do a LOT of additional reading this morning!
In my professional life, I read deeply on #ownvoices and the accurate representation of marginalized groups for children’s literature, and have read a lot about Little House on the Prairie as it pertains to children – my very long thoughts on this can be condensed into this very simplistic paragraph:
The books were written by a person of that time period raised by people with certain racist beliefs that were common in that time period – we know now that the beliefs were misguided and that the entire situation involving the removal of American Indians from their lands was wrong. It’s fine for children to read these books with appropriate context given by adults, and questioning encouraged, as these discussions spark greater dialogue about racism and what is right. We also need to be sure to include counterpart texts written by people of these marginalized groups showing their stories.
It’s interesting reading Caroline because I see how well you wrote the context surrounding Caroline’s reactions, and made it apparent to readers that she was misguided and felt differently than Charles did. Adult readers understand the historical aspect and understand the true situation involving American Indians, so I don’t have the same concerns as I have with kidlit.
I guess what I’m struggling with in my attempt to promote accurate representation and diversity, is the romanticism surrounding this story, and if it were a man would we be more quick to judge him harshly? If this were a white woman in a story set in the antebellum south and the “others” were black, what would we think? Please know that this is not in any way a criticism of your work or the book, but just my general professional ponderings and my quest to understand the great big world of history, context and interpretation as we move through time and the general cultural belief systems shift.
SARAH: Thank you for broaching this topic! It’s something that’s been very much on my mind as I worked, but until you asked I hadn’t given myself the opportunity to try to articulate my thoughts into a cohesive whole. I had a lot more to say than I anticipated.
One of the best pieces of advice I received while working on this book was to NOT explain/excuse Caroline’s racism. Racism is the default in 1870. Even if she hadn’t been aware of the so-called “Sioux Uprising” of 1862 that likely fueled her darkest fears, she would have been prejudiced against American Indians. That fact makes people uncomfortable, and I am a-OK with readers experiencing that kind of discomfort.
My usage of Ma, Mrs. Ingalls, and Caroline is not arbitrary. For clarity within my own mind, I established distinct definitions between the three as I researched and wrote Caroline: Little House, Revisited, and those distinctions have stuck.
Ma: The matriarch of the fictional Ingalls family, invented by Laura Ingalls Wilder and modeled closely on her own mother.
Mrs. Ingalls (also Caroline Ingalls): The actual living, breathing woman who was born in Brookfield, Wisconsin in 1839 and died in De Smet, South Dakota in 1924.
Caroline: My own fictional hybrid of the two.
KATE: It’s interesting reading Caroline because I see how well you wrote the context surrounding Caroline’s reactions, and made it apparent to readers that she was misguided and felt differently than Charles did.
Thank you! But did Pa actually feel differently? Once I really started to ponder this, a whole bunch of new thoughts happened. (See below.)
KATE: I guess what I’m struggling with in my attempt to promote accurate representation and diversity, is the romanticism surrounding this story —
What I see people struggling with when it comes to racism and Laura Ingalls Wilder is this idea:
If her writing is racist, and I love her books, what does that say about…me?
Who wants to acknowledge that? I’m not sure which is harder, acknowledging racism in a beloved author, or in yourself.
One curious work-around I’ve noticed is the habit of assigning the novels’ racism entirely to the characters rather than Laura Ingalls Wilder herself. When the narrator says in The Long Winter that Ma “looked as if she were smelling the smell of an Indian whenever she said the word,” that’s Wilder’s racism on display as much or more than Ma’s. Granted, Ma apparently turned her nose up at the very mention of Indians, a blatant reaction of distaste. But it’s actually Wilder who’s spoon-feeding us the more distasteful idea that Indians stink. Similarly, despite popular belief to the contrary, Ma is not the one who says “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” in Little House on the Prairie. That vile remark comes from Mr. & Mrs. Scott — fictional characters likely invented by Wilder. (I haven’t been able to figure out how that statement got attributed to Ma. Maybe in the TV show?) How many times does a person get to make you wince before you have to concede, Yep…that’s some racism right there.
Have you seen the video Grace Lin did on this topic? It’s terrific.
I love what she says, and I love that it specifically addresses Ma Ingalls. Shouldn’t we also apply the same thinking to Laura Ingalls Wilder? You still get to love her, even though she’s flawed. I mean, if you’re not allowed to love flawed people, you pretty much can’t love anybody.
KATE: — and if it were a man would we be more quick to judge him harshly?
That is such an interesting angle to ponder.
The more I think about it, the more I think the opposite might be true. Consider that it’s Pa, not Ma, who refers to the Osages in demeaning terms: “screeching devils” and “common trash.” It’s Pa who deliberately settles his family on other people’s land in hopes that they will be displaced so he can take possession of it. (Don’t fall for Laura Ingalls Wilder’s excuse about “blasted politicians” upending Pa’s good intentions, by the way. Charles Ingalls could not have been ignorant of the fact that he settled several miles within the Osage Diminished Reserve. Almost the whole of Montgomery County was within the Diminished Reserve’s boundaries.) He doesn’t appear frightened of the Osages, but he has very little regard for them as people. Yes, he calls them “peaceable,” and maintains that if they’re not provoked, they’ll do no harm. But just now for the first time I’m thinking to myself, Wait a minute — listen to that again. That’s the kind of thing you’d tell your child when you find a bees’ nest in the yard: If you don’t poke it, they won’t sting you. Underneath his cavalier tone I’m hearing a subtext of, They’re dangerous and unpredictable and we can’t reason with them. Remember how he reacts when he finds out Laura and Mary almost turned Jack loose on the first two Osage men to enter the cabin? I think he’s a lot more wary than he appears. If he believes they’re so friendly and peaceable, why does he tell Ma, “We don’t want to make enemies out of any Indians”? It goes without saying that nobody wants to make enemies — of anyone. What is it about the Osages that makes him feel the need to state the obvious?
And yet it’s Ma who has the reputation of being the biggest racist in the Ingalls family — bigger even than Jack the bulldog, who “all the time…lay and hated the Indians.” In Little House on the Prairie, Ma is characterized as fearful rather than hateful. She feels more vulnerable than Pa because she’s a woman. In her mind, Indians are a threat to her safety, and her daughters’ safety. Does she also see Indians as less than human? Very probably, but without being privy to the real Mrs. Ingalls’s actual thoughts, I can’t be sure what the answer to that question is. All we’ve got to go on is the fictionalized, secondhand word of Laura Ingalls Wilder, who saw her mother only once after leaving South Dakota at age 27. Ma certainly sees American Indian culture as less civilized, which lends her an unmistakable air of superiority that makes modern readers squirm. The fact that she doesn’t want her daughters to mimic Indians’ appearance or (stereotypical) behavior by getting tanned in the sun, or yelling, sure doesn’t bode well.
So yes, Ma’s negative reactions are much more overt than Pa’s, but I’d be sorely tempted to argue that Pa’s veiled prejudice is more harmful to young readers (maybe even readers of any age) than Ma’s fear. The irrationality of her fear is so easy to see nowadays that we pity Ma even as we condemn her prejudice. Meanwhile, Pa’s insidious attitudes fly so far under the radar that he gets a proverbial cookie for being more progressive than his wife.
Personally, I can’t help wondering if Mrs. Ingalls truly hated Indians. That’s certainly how Laura Ingalls Wilder interpreted her mother’s reaction toward them. Yet I can’t recall an instance in the Little House series where Ma Ingalls exhibits hatred rather than fear. Fear is still racism, of course, but it feels more…dare I say palatable somehow?…than hatred. There’s a moment in my novel where Caroline does realize, briefly, that her perceptions have been distorted by fear. It would have been immensely satisfying to a modern reader if I had turned that moment into a larger epiphany. But that option simply was not available to me. You can’t impose current sensibilities onto an historical figure, especially when there’s evidence to the contrary. Laura Ingalls Wilder said her (fictional) mother hated Indians, and I have no choice but to take her at her word, regardless of how I want to view Ma’s behavior. Maybe I ask this question because I love Mrs. Ingalls, and so deep down I do secretly wish I could exonerate her racism somehow. She is such a good woman otherwise that it’s difficult to reconcile.
That’s something white folks often fail to admit — that racists are not all terrible human beings. I’m becoming more and more aware that in books and in movies, characters who are racist are almost always people you wouldn’t want to spend time with in the first place. Think of Kirsten Dunst’s character in Hidden Figures, for example. Everything she says to Dorothy Vaughn/Octavia Spencer is tinged with snottiness and superiority. That’s because for the most part, racists in fiction are also all-around jerks. That is just not true to life. I’m convinced it’s a story white people keep telling so that we can feel good about ourselves: If we are not jerks, then we can’t be racists. In reality, I know nice people who are also racist — perhaps not overtly or even consciously, but racist nonetheless. It’s difficult not to be racist at last once in awhile when you’re part of a society where racism is institutionalized and endemic. (In that sense, you could perhaps argue that Laura Ingalls Wilder is more honest about racism than we are today.)
I almost always bring up my grandpa in discussions like this. He was born in Nebraska in 1915. My understanding is that until he moved to Detroit as a teenager, he’d never heard the word negro. Where he grew up, a different word that starts with N was in vogue. He also didn’t know that the proper usage of jew is as a noun — where he came from, it was a verb. He grew up using racist vocabulary because those terms were the default. But once he learned better, he did better. He lived to be 100 years old and I never in my life heard him speak disparagingly of black or jewish people.
Point being? You can do/say/think racist things without being a capital-R Racist. You can unconsciously perpetuate racism without being a Racist. Progress might advance much more quickly if white people could get accustomed to that fact, instead of reacting like someone’s found a white hood in the back of the coat closet when we get called out. Everybody gets it wrong sometimes, and some mistakes are more cringe-worthy than others. But if you learn better and then consciously refuse to do better? Well, then you’ve probably just exposed yourself as a Racist.
Caroline Ingalls — the real Caroline Ingalls — undoubtably said and did and thought racist things. Was she a Racist? I don’t know. I’d like very much to think not, but again, how many times does she have to make *me* wince before I’ve got to concede the point? I can’t imagine Mrs. Ingalls supporting the Klan, for instance, but on the other hand I don’t much want to contemplate what her opinion of Indian boarding schools might have been. I’d like to think that if she learned better, she’d have done better. She died in 1924, though. I’d hazard a guess that there weren’t many opportunities to get woke in her lifetime.
If this were a white woman in a story set in the antebellum south and the “others” were black, what would we think?
I suspect we would be much quicker to condemn her racism in that context. Why is that? Is it more “ok” to be prejudiced against American Indians than African Americans? Of course it’s not. But as a society we do seem less attuned to discrimination toward Native people. People just don’t see/recognize racism against American Indians as readily as other kinds of discrimination. There are still plenty of folks who will argue that Laura Ingalls Wilder was not racist, simply because fictional-Laura questions Pa about why the Osages have to leave their land. These folks are entirely willing to overlook her degrading descriptions of the Osage men who enter the cabin, and the “Indian War-cry” chapter which has no basis in reality. Nor do they recognize the stereotype of the noble savage in Soldat du Chene. And that business with the Indians wearing “fresh” reeking skunk skins? That’s crazytalk. People accept that kind of nonsense because Laura was there, and Laura was nice.
I used to be one of those people. I learned during the course of my research to pay attention to more than what the characters say and do, to pay as much or more attention to what the narrative voice — the author’s voice, in the case of Laura Ingalls Wilder — says about Native people. What can be more telling than Wilder’s description of Indian Territory in the first edition of Little House on the Prairie as a land where “there were no people. Only Indians lived there.” When the implication was pointed out to her in 1952, Wilder admitted it was a “stupid blunder” and said she’d never meant to suggest that Indians were not people. With her consent the text was changed to “there were no settlers.” But intent is irrelevant. The fact remains that for twenty years, one of the most widely read children’s books of a generation did not recognize Osages as humans.
When I began to recognize Wilder’s racism, I realized that one of my biggest challenges with Caroline would be to convey the characters’ fears and prejudices without allowing my own narrative voice to succumb to any racist attitudes and descriptions. I hope and pray I’ve been successful.
THANK YOU, SARAH!
We would love to hear your questions and thoughts on this in the comments below!