Two sides of the same coin.

Amazing how two authors from different cultures can see the same time period so differently. I already mentioned that for my Multicultural Literature course we were assigned both Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie and Louise Erdrich's The Birchbark House. Both books deal with the same period of time – mid-late 19th century – and both deal, at least partially, with race relations between whites and Native Americans. The biggest similarity is the two books illustrate the hard lives and privations of those who live off the land.

I'd read Little House on the Prairie as a child. And I've already mentioned I was also a semi-fan of the television series. On my first time through the book I didn't really note all the anti-Native American sentiment. It went over my head, since I was more interested in Laura and her exploits than what Ma thought about Native Americans. But this time through I was struck with horror by quotes like, "The only good Indian is a dead Indian," which I hadn't remembered from my childhood reading. On the other hand, this may have been a true reflection of contemporary opinion of the time period in which the book was set. Period detail shows authenticity, and is not necessarily the opinion of the author.

Louise Erdrich's book, The Birchbark House, seems to be a direct response to Wilder's book, though written decades later. It's not an angry book; it doesn't seek revenge. But it does address some of the very real issues, such as the presumption of missionaries seeking to convert the Indians from their earth-based religion to Christianity, as well as the introduction of smallpox to the Native American community by a member of the white race.

Erdrich makes her point elegantly. She presents the earth-respecting lives of Native Americans as having been similar to the hard, sometimes frustrating lives of white pioneers. And though there's some hint as to the feelings Indians had about white people, it's nowhere near as harsh as the opinions whites had about Indians in Little House. Yet, there are also scenes in LH in which Indian culture is presented positively, to be fair. Most of the outright prejudice comes from Caroline Ingalls, the mother, who fears Native Americans mostly on behalf of the perceived danger they pose to her children.

The two books are a perfect juxtaposition. Erdich's book comes off better, though she's also had the benefit of the intervening decades to form her opinions and speak to the issues raised by Wilder. Each writer speaks of what she knows, from personal experience. The reader can, with a high degree of certainty, assume the pictures they paint are based largely on fact.

Still, it may not be fair comparing the two without a firm understanding of the cultures from which they come. But it adds a lot to the discussion reading these two simultaneously. It's always better to see a subject from more than one side. That serves to balance things out, and to minimize the possibility of being prejudiced by one opinion or the other. Which I guess is why the professor chose these two books, eh? And it should produce some great discussion.

One thought on “Two sides of the same coin.

  1. I remember being shocked at the fear and dare I say hate? that was in Little House on The Prairie. I dearly loved the books as a child, and read them over and over. But, when I read them as an adult, I thought how terrifying, and unjust, the differences between the pioneers and Native Americans was.

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