book troubles: books that come with controversy

I finished an amazing book last week – Prairie Fires by Caroline Fraser – but I haven’t written a review here on my blog yet. I want to talk about why, and it’s my blog, so I will.

It actually has very little to do with Prairie Fires. I haven’t seen any controversy around that particular book, the way it was written, the way the subject matter was handled, or the author. The book, in case you don’t know, is a non-fiction biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder and history of the time she and her family lived. It is an enlightening book, in terms of a very specific part of American history not often paid attention too and in terms of how the Little House on the Prairie book series came into existence. I think it’s a book that should be read by anyone even a little bit interested in the history of America, because American history is not always pretty.

And here lies the thing that let me to write this thing about about books shrouded in controversy.

Laura Ingalls Wilder has become… controversial.

I don’t really understand it, to be honest. I don’t understand why it’s becoming taboo to read her books, to find something worthwhile and even enjoyable in her books.

She lived from 1867 to 1957 and similar things could be said for many novels, and her books are essentially novelizations of her life, written by authors who lived and wrote then. Especially in terms of racism. To like a book, even simply to read a book in which racist things are said does not mean that a reader is racist or endorses racism. Books like Wilder’s, like Mark Twain’s, have to be seen in the context of the time they were written. People said and did things then that we find wholly unacceptable now, as we should.

Twain’s books, only one example among many, have been banned in schools or been sanitized of offensive language. The ALSC has renamed the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award after complaints about how she wrote about Indians.

But is that censorship? Isn’t it trying too hard to say that we are perfect now, just like we always have been?

We aren’t perfect. Even the things Wilder and Twain and the others wrote were not quite perfect in their times. But it was real. And if we ignore that, if we pretend it doesn’t and didn’t exist by wiping things from curriculum and renaming awards, aren’t we missing the point of literature?

That literature is a tool, a way to teach us what we can be, what we are, and what we were.

We can be people who don’t use the n-word, who don’t count Native Americans as lesser people. But we sometimes still are people who use the n-word, who count people who don’t like us as not as good as us. And we were people who used the n-word, who counted ourselves as better than everyone else.

How do we teach children, the audience for Wilder’s books and, to some extent, Twain’s, what was wrong if we pretend it never happened?

There is value in the books that everyone wants to change and ignore, and it’s important to sit with children and teach them to understand, to question, and to learn. Even, maybe especially, in books that don’t quite have the rosy glow they once did.

*book troubles could become a thing here on my blog, as a means of discussing the, yes, troubles of being a Reader. We all know there are problems and troubles along the way so, why not talk about them? Will my opinions be entirely ‘in the moment’ and ‘trendy’? No. I don’t read what everybody else is reading in the moment, never have. I just can’t. But will my book troubles be about books and things that had troubles at some point? You bet!

2 thoughts on “book troubles: books that come with controversy”

  1. You’re right, Nicole. We live in bewildering, often maddening times. The thought police are running amok. I agree with you – let students (or whoever) read the books and then have an intelligent conversation about them. Thanks for writing your post.

    1. Thanks for sharing your take on what I said. I was a little nervous posting it because people can get very… passionate about why what they think is the correct way to think. I don’t have kids but I want my nephew and my niece to read these things, to learn from them. And I want them to learn to have intelligent conversation with the generation that comes after them.

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