Saturday, July 18, 2020

Looking for a counterpoint to Little House on the Prairie?

I have fond memories of reading Little House on the Prairie and Laura Ingalls Wilder's other books as a child. Their episodic stories of frontier life fit my third grade attention span perfectly, and the descriptions of ingenuous living off the land were captivating.

Photo via Birchbark Books

When I picked them up (starting with Little House in the Big Woods) again a few decades later to share with my children, I largely found them to be as enjoyable as I recalled. However, when we reached Little House on the Prairie I was startled by the racism Wilder expresses so clearly toward the Native Americans her family encountered.

Jack hated Indians, and Ma said she didn’t blame him. She said, “I declare, Indians are getting so thick around here that I can’t look up without seeing one.”

Laura Ingalls Wilder. Little House on the Prairie (p. 214). Kindle Edition. 

Reading aloud to my kids, I addressed this by doing some on-the-fly editing and by encouraging my sons to reflect on the Native Americans' perspective (random white people showing up in their land). However, after we finished 'Little House I decided we needed to try something different.

Googling for alternatives, I came across The Birchbark House by Minnesota author Louise Erdrich. Set in approximately the same time and location as 'Little House, The Birchbark House (and its sequels) meet the standard Wilder set for episodic, child-friendly adventure and provide a fictional Native American (Ojibwa, specifically) point of view on the westward movement of white families.

The ogimaa or the president of all of the chimookomanag had sent a message to the leaders of the Ojibwe. That message was simple. They must leave their homes. The ogimaa said that the government now owned the ground they lived on. It was needed for white settlers. He had issued a removal order. He had decided that land payments would be given out in a new place in the west.

Erdrich, Louise. The Game of Silence (Birchbark House) (p. 23). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition. 

Its protagonist, a girl named Omakayas, is of an age with Laura and experiences many similar struggles (e.g., relationships with siblings and parents, rough winters, etc). However, Erdrich addresses the affects of smallpox head on, which is far rougher territory than Wilder ever touches. It was an apt discussion, allowing me to describe the differences and similarities between smallpox and COVID-19.

I highly recommend The Birchbark House.

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