Decent Films Mail > Mailbag #12

Re: The Little House books

I saw that you listed “Little House on the Prairie” among the items whose release on DVD you greeted positively. Here’s another perspective on the Little House books.

Although the 2008 DVD article reference was to the TV series, I’m a bigger fan of the books than I am of the series, and have read them aloud to my children more than once. In any case, the essay you link to is less a critical assessment of the Little House books than an Osage Indian lament of the injustices suffered by the author’s ancestors.

Almost Mr. McAuliffe’s first statement about the actual books — that Mrs. Wilder “left out the detail” that she and her family were “illegal squatters on Osage land” — is wrong. The book does make it clear that Laura’s family were not legally permitted to be in Indian territory, but Pa believed he had it on good authority that the government was poised to permit settlement of the land. Evidently he was wrong. Later, believing that soldiers were coming to evict them from Indian territory, the Ingallses left. (This incident is also misreported in McAuliffe’s essay, which could explain the discrepancy McAuliffe alleges on this point.)

McAuliffe criticizes the book for including “General Sheridan’s racist remark” that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian,” but fails to report that the book also depicts Pa rejecting this racist attitude, in part based on his experience of the nobility and moral courage of the French-speaking Osage chief Mrs. Wilder calls Soldat du Chêne, who saved her family. The book depicts Ma as frankly racist but Pa as open-minded and respectful toward the Indians. Would McAuliffe prefer happy-faced historical revisionism in which racism was nonexistent?

McAuliffe brings somewhat understandable but excessive jaundice to his characterization of how the Osage are depicted in the book. It is true that some are seen as beggars and thieves, although it always seemed to me that since the Ingallses are on their land illegally anyway they were in no position to complain. But others are noble and beautiful, and I find nothing to justify McAuliffe’s charge that Laura “mocks” the plight of the skeletal Osage figures stooping to eat specks of food on the floor.

McAuliffe’s ill will is evident in other passages, particularly his willingness to “assume” that Charles Ingalls must have been “sleazy” enough to take part in such crimes as burning Indian fields, forcing them at gunpoint from their homes, threatening them with death if they returned and even robbing their graves. A person willing to “assume” all that isn’t trying to arrive at a critically responsible and balanced assessment.

I do agree at least partly with McAuliffe about one thing: The clean-shaven Michael Landon was nothing like the real Pa. In spite of this, I recommend the series as well as the books.

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