Vanguard of imagination becomes condemner of history

We have met the thought police, but it is a group you would never expect.

It’s in an organization dedicated to libraries, which are houses of great knowledge of all kinds. Reading is power, but the organization in question apparently doesn’t want the public to have too much power as it belittles one of the great American writers of the 20th century.

The Association for Library Services to Children — a branch of the American Libraries Association — voted unanimously to rename the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, given to an outstanding writer in children’s literature, and instead call it the Children’s Literature Legacy Award.

“This decision was made in consideration of the fact that Wilder’s legacy, as represented by her body of work, includes expressions of stereotypical attitudes inconsistent with ALSC’s core values of inclusiveness, integrity and respect, and responsiveness,” the ALSC said in a statement. The stereotypical attitudes the organization alludes to are the way black people and Native Americans were treated.

I wonder if the voting members of the ALSC ever cracked open a textbook. If any of them had, they would see how their attitude amounts to censorship and — pardon the expression — whitewashing.

Wilder grew up in the 19th century, and her books came out during the middle of the 20th century. The books are based on her life as she grew up as part of a pioneering family in the American West.

During those periods of time, black people and Native Americans were not treated with respect. They were spat on, beaten and told they couldn’t mingle in white establishments. Their unique cultures were frowned upon, and there were even attempts to erase them.

As someone who read the “Little House on the Prairie” books growing up, I find the name change to be ridiculous. As a published author myself, I’m outraged that the ALSC would decide that the first winner of the prestigious award is no longer worthy to be the award’s namesake.

The ALSC described Wilder’s legacy as “complex” and that her books “are not universally embraced.” I’d like to meet an author who is simple and beloved by everybody. That would be quite a feat. Anyone can find anything wrong with any book any day of the week.

The ALSC is trying to put a contemporary lens on historical fiction, and that makes no sense. It’s doing something that George Orwell warned about in his book “1984”: “Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”

The way minorities were treated more than a century ago was horrible. But the reality is that America committed those atrocities, and without examples of the mistakes made sitting in our libraries, we cannot learn from history, and we cannot prevent those same dark chapters from happening again.

We should also remember that Wilder’s books are not all about minorities. It was about the joys and burdens of moving to unknown territory. It’s about the tragedy of an older sister losing her sight. It’s about the wonder and adventure of seeing new places. It’s about the difficulty of resisting the urge to punch Nellie Oleson in the nose. We’re worried about the racial overtones so much that we forget there’s a story about survival and perseverance in those pages.

The “Little House on the Prairie” books have inspired generations. There are groups that hold festivals dedicated to Wilder and the pioneering spirit. A biography about Wilder came out last year. The woman was able to craft a story in a time well before self-publishing and during a period when women writers were in the minority. We should celebrate Wilder, not condemn her. We certainly shouldn’t be sitting in judgment of her now that she’s been dead for over 60 years.

Who will the ALSC condemn next? Mark Twain? He’s a famous American writer who showed black people were persecuted. One of his books, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” features a character whose name, Jim, is preceded by a racial slur. Yet that book has been considered for decades to be the Great American Novel.

America is supposed to be, ideally, a melting pot of different cultures and ideas. We have definitely fallen short in the last 200 years and certainly today. When we condemn a person for writing books based on where and when she grew up because they don’t fit in with our ideals in the here and now, we condemn ourselves to a society where there is only black and white, no shades of gray. Does that sound like a world you want to live in?

The ALSC has shown itself to be nothing more than a crusader for political correctness when it should a vanguard for imagination and free thought. Let us all rebel against this lovesick accomplice of groupthink by cracking open a book and getting lost in an amazing story, because the reality today is definitely stranger than fiction.

Lee Pulaski is the city editor for The Shawano Leader. Readers can contact him at lpulaski@wolfrivermedia.com.