Monday, January 22, 2018

The Cover for Traci Sorell's WE ARE GRATEFUL: OTSALIHELIGA

On January 18, All the Wonders did the cover reveal for Traci Sorell's We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga.

People who think of Indigenous peoples as "vanished" or no longer "real Indians" if we aren't walking around in feathers and beads may not know just how wrong they are! That idea is silly! Of course we're still here--and let's be real: those stereotypical ideas are harmful to everyone.

We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, written by Traci Sorell and illustrated by Frané Lessac will be out in September, from Charlesbridge. Head over to All the Wonders to read the author and illustrator interviews, and... order the book! 

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Allie Jane Bruce's review of LAURA INGALLS IS RUINING MY LIFE

Eds. note: AICL is pleased to publish Allie Jane Bruce's review of Laura Ingalls Is Ruining My Life, by Shelley Tougas. It was published in 2017 by Roaring Book Press (Macmillan). To read the introduction to this review, go to Allie's post at Reading While White.

Here's a description of the book (from the Macmillan website):
A life on the prairie is not all its cracked up to be for one girl whose mom takes her love of the Little House series just a bit too far.
Charlotte’s mom has just moved the family across the country to live in Walnut Grove, “childhood home of pioneer author Laura Ingalls Wilder.” Mom’s idea is that the spirit of Laura Ingalls will help her write a bestselling book. But Charlotte knows better: Walnut Grove is just another town where Mom can avoid responsibility. And this place is worse than everywhere else the family has lived—it’s freezing in the winter, it’s small with nothing to do, and the people talk about Laura Ingalls all the time. Charlotte’s convinced her family will not be able to make a life on the prairie—until the spirit of Laura Ingalls starts getting to her, too.


Laura Ingalls Is Ruining My Life, by Shelley Tougas.  
Roaring Brook Press.  
Reviewed by Allie Jane Bruce.
NB - I read, and used page numbers from, a galley of this book.
At the outset of Laura Ingalls Is Ruining My Life, twelve-year-old Charlotte makes it clear that she finds her mom’s obsession with Laura Ingalls irritating. Any time Mom or Rose (Charlotte’s younger sister) reference the Little House books or Laura Ingalls, Charlotte’s reaction is somewhere in the ballpark of “Seriously?” or “Ugh.” On page 8, Charlotte thinks:
Realistically, I was stuck with Laura for a year. I had to deal with her the way you deal with an upset stomach. You wait it out. Eventually you puke and feel better. 
On their move from Lexington, Kentucky to Walnut Grove, Minnesota, Mom decides they must stop and eat at a diner they see, called "Prairie Diner". When Mom starts to engage a waitress on the subject, Charlotte thinks (p. 9): 
I needed to shut this down before Mom launched her crazy spirit-of-Laura explanation. 
It is important to note, however, that Charlotte’s negative reactions have nothing to do with any inkling that the books, or Laura herself, are racist or problematic. Charlotte is irritated because she is a snarky, often pessimistic character, and the idea of Laura’s spirit calling out to Mom’s creative soul rubs her the wrong way.

On page 34, in her new classroom, Charlotte notices (p. 34): 
There were twenty-four students in our new class, including Julia [their landlady’s granddaughter], Freddy [her twin brother], and me. Six were Asian. Julia was the only Hispanic student, as far as I could tell. Everyone else was white. 
I wondered, upon reading this, whether all those White kids were actually White, or whether Charlotte might be misidentifying someone; many people present, or pass for, White but in fact identify as Native, Latinx, or multiracial. I wondered more about this on page 36, as the kids are being given an assignment. Mrs. Newman (her teacher) says:
“You will write about how Laura Ingalls and her story have influenced our community and affected your life. [...] You don’t have to be a fan. I know there are students who haven’t read the books, which saddens me greatly, but if you live here, there’s no getting around Laura’s influence. Even if you haven’t read the books, which truly saddens me, you are aware of how she’s shaped our town, and if you’re not aware, that is heartbreaking.” 
I tried to imagine myself as a Native kid reading this passage, or to take it a step further, as a White-presenting Native kid in Charlotte’s class. How would this talk about not reading the books, and not being aware of how Laura Ingalls shaped their town, as “saddening” and “heartbreaking” land with me? Reading it with this mindset, it made me angry. Native people were subject to genocide and forced relocation because of the invasion of people like Laura Ingalls; but what’s really heartbreaking is if someone hasn’t read or appreciated her books?

Charlotte finds the assignment annoying, but not problematic. She writes an essay titled “Laura Ingalls Is Ruining My Life” and describes how angry she is that her flighty mother moved them to the town of Walnut Grove to chase Laura’s creative energy.

Soon after, Charlotte gets sick and has to stay home from school for several days. Mom reads to her from the Little House books, which Charlotte likes. Charlotte describes how much Ma hates Indians, the first reference thus far to any racism or problematic content in the Little House books (p. 46):
And Ma, who is the sweetest character in the book, hates Indians, and I mean hates hates hates them. Maybe it was because the Ingalls built their cabin on Indian land, and the Indians weren’t too happy about it. In the end, both the Indians and the Ingalls pack up their stuff and move. The Indians are forced to leave their hunting grounds, and the Ingalls end up on the banks of Plum Creek near Walnut Grove, because all Pa wants to do is move. 
Charlotte offers all of this without editorializing or offering her opinion on Ma’s opinions, which I found strange, since Charlotte offers her opinion on everything, especially if she finds it annoying. Are we to conclude that Charlotte doesn’t find Ma’s bigotry annoying? At best, she is dispassionate about it.

On page 52, Charlotte’s mom changes her mind about her writing project. Where she’d previously intended to write an historical fiction about an orphan girl moving to the prairie, she now wants to write about (p. 52)
...twins who sneak aboard this space shuttle that’s going to colonize Mars... Mom says it’s the same story because it’s about exploration and pioneers. So we’re still here for Laura. She still needs Laura’s spirit.
This is interesting, because I’ve seen outer space exploration and aliens used as metaphors for colonialism and invasion before, in books like The Knife of Never Letting Go, Landscape With Invisible Hand, and The True Meaning of Smekday. I have mixed feelings about them. I appreciate the emphasis on interrogating invaders; and, I think it’s problematic to draw a parallel between aliens and Native humans, or to cast Native and non-Native people as equal parties in any story about colonization. I think Mom’s idea for a Mars book, which rests on an analogy in which White pioneers are to humans as Native people are to literal Martians, is deeply problematic. Over the course of Laura Ingalls Is Ruining My Life, Charlotte and others question whether the Mars book is a good idea, but not for the reasons I state above.

Charlotte reads an essay on Manifest Destiny, and soon after that, on the Transcontinental Railroad. About the Manifest Destiny essay, Charlotte thinks (p. 79-80):

The essay, “Manifest Destiny and America’s Expansion,” was long and boring. If you’ve heard people say something is as boring as watching paint dry, well, the Manifest Destiny essay would bore the paint. [...]  The essay went like this: After colonists won independence from England, American leaders thought it was destiny for our country to grow. If ordinary Americans could own land, not just rich people, then they would be committed to making the country strong and the best in the word. So the government bought land around Louisiana from France and fought with Mexico to get even more land. And pretty soon the country stretched “from sea to shining sea,” just like the song “America the Beautiful” said.

Charlotte’s only problem with the essay is that she found it boring.

On page 82, Charlotte discusses the Transcontinental Railroad with Rose (her younger sister) and we get our first inkling that she’s starting to see some of these problems. After describing the hardships in The Long Winter, Rose says (p. 93-94):

“Finally spring came and the trains arrived with supplies. So many pioneers would’ve died without trains bringing stuff from the East. Trains were lifesavers.” 
I flopped on my bed. “Tell that to Chinese workers. Tell that to the buffalo.” 
“What do you mean?” 
“The railroad company hired workers from China and barely paid them and had them do all the dangerous work, like blowing up tunnels. Lots of them died. When the trains were up and running, men would sit in train cars and shoot buffalo for fun. They didn’t even eat the meat. The buffalo just rotted and pretty soon buffalo became almost extinct.”

I like this exchange, although I wonder why we haven’t heard more of Charlotte’s inner thoughts about this--she seems to be reevaluating her initial take on Manifest Destiny.

Next, Charlotte learns about the U.S.-Dakota War (although the book doesn’t call it this). She reads about the “Dakota Sioux Conflict”.  Her teacher says (p. 114-115):

“I want you to start with the Dakota Sioux Conflict because it was essentially a war that happened right here in southwestern Minnesota. The whole thing was overshadowed by the Civil War, so most people know very little about it. You’ll make some connections between it and the Ingalls family.” 
“Like Ma hating Indians?” 
“In a way,” she said. “No doubt she’d heard about Indians killing settlers in southwestern Minnesota, and she was afraid.” 
“It’s not like she could call 9-1-1.” 
“Indians were afraid of the settlers, too. The government broke treaty after treaty. They didn’t give the Indians supplies that were promised, and the Indians were afraid they’d starve that winter.”

Having learned that one outcome of the U.S.-Dakota war was the largest mass execution in U.S. history, I am troubled by this “fair and balanced” account.

A few pages later, Mrs. Newman assigns Charlotte an essay on the Trail of Tears (p. 126):
She handed me an article. I glanced at the title—something about Native Americans and a Trail of Tears. “Here’s one more thing I want you to read. You can take your time, but I do want to discuss it.” 
On page 132, Charlotte and Julia (their landlady’s granddaughter) have a conversation in which they talk about how “perfect” Pa Ingalls was as a dad (conveniently omitting his blackface performance). Julia also says, describing what she wrote about in her award-winning essay on Laura Ingalls (p. 132):

“The Asians here are Hmong, which is like Vietnamese, but not exactly. Tons of them came to Minnesota after the war in Vietnam.” 
“Seems kind of random.” 
“It’s like a new group of settlers came to the prairie.” 

I cringe at several things here--casually describing Hmong people as “like Vietnamese, but not exactly” (how would that land with a Hmong child reading it?), “random” (in the large picture, Hmong people living in Walnut Grove isn’t any more “random” than Charlotte, or any White people, living in Walnut Grove, but this casts them as “other” and somehow different). As for “a new group of settlers came to the prairie” -- to equate Westward invasion and Manifest Destiny with the experiences of immigrants of color living in a White-dominated society is simply inaccurate, and troubling, in that it ignores the power dynamic Hmong people face and erases the fact that White people invaded Native lands (if White people invading the West were “immigrants” the way that Hmong people are immigrants in this context, Native people would have no legitimate grievances).

There’s an argument, of course, that Julia is twelve years old and doesn’t understand these dynamics; I do not, however, get the sense that Tougas recognizes the problems with what Julia says (at least, she does not recognize them in the text) or is presenting this conversation as a teachable moment, as she never counters Julia’s ideas. On the contrary, I get a strong feeling that we as readers are supposed to be learning and taking in what Julia says here.

In this same conversation, one of the more interesting things in the book happens. Julia describes another classmate, Lanie, whose essay was passed over for an award (p. 134):
“She [Lanie] wrote that we should have a museum for Native Americans because they lived around here first, and they had these battles with settlers.  She said the early farmers shouldn't be called settlers because the land was already settled. They were more like invaders.’ Julia leaned forward and whispered, ‘My grandma heard Mrs. Newman liked Lanie's essay because it showed critical thinking, but Gloria and Teresa said no way.  Basically I was the second choice.” 
(Gloria and Teresa run the Laura Ingalls museum, where Julia and Charlotte work after school.)

I would so, so have loved to see this line of thought extended. Proposing the word “invaders” instead of “settlers” is a big deal, and an important conversation. Alas, this language is never revisited; Charlotte and Julia encounter some mean boys, and further solidify their friendship. Charlotte doesn’t comment on the settlers/invaders question, internally or overtly. This scene factors into my conclusion that Laura Ingalls Is Ruining My Life evolves, rather than interrupts, racism. More on that later.

The Trail of Tears essay, which Mrs. Newman assigned to Charlotte on page 126, is next referenced, briefly, on page 169, when Charlotte asks Rose if she’s seen the essay (Rose took it to read it). On page 173, Charlotte and Mrs. Newman have a brief conversation about it; Mrs. Newman brings it up again on page 226. Charlotte still hasn’t read it.

On page 198, police show up at Charlotte’s house with the news that someone vandalized the Ingalls museum (spray painted “I hate Walnut Grove I hate Lara”); they suspect Charlotte. This plotline dominates the rest of the book, and culminates in (spoiler) Rose confessing that she did it.  Some relevant passages I pulled (p. 206-207):

Everyone in Walnut Grove was proud of the town’s history. When they drove by the museum and saw those ugly words, they’d feel angry and sad.

But that didn’t explain my feelings, either. They went even deeper than that. I realized I felt terrible for Laura [...] after living on the lonely Kansas prairie, the Ingalls had found civilization in Walnut Grove. They had a real school, a nice church, and good neighbors. [...] 
“Mom, I think I’m feeling Laura’s energy—for real. She’s sad about what happened to the museum. [...] Whoever did it couldn’t even spell her name. They’re stupid and mean.’” 

I paused at this. Are spray painted words on the side of the Ingalls museum uglier than the existence of a museum glorifying participants in Manifest Destiny?

I had similar thoughts regarding this exchange between Charlotte and Mrs. Newman (p. 225-226):

“I know I wrote a negative essay, but I was mad when I wrote it. I’ve spent a couple months in Laura’s world. I like her. [...] Maybe the person who did it doesn’t even hate Laura Ingalls. Maybe they just wanted to destroy something that makes other people happy.” 
“Unfortunately, there are people like that in the world.” 

Then, there’s this conversation between Charlotte and her mom (p. 207-208):

“There’s something about our country and the West,” she said in a dreamy voice. “It’s romantic. [...] we have this sense of pride in conquering the Wild West.”

“When they built the railroad, men would ride the trains with shotguns and kill buffalo just because it was fun, like an old-fashioned version of a video game.” 
“That’s terrible,” Mom said.

“Westward expansion stunk if you were Native American.”

“I know.”

This is never followed up on. Mom never accounts for why, if she knew all along that Westward Invasion "stunk" for Native people, she felt comfortable talking in a "dreamy" voice about the "romance" and "pride" of "conquering" the "Wild West". I conclude from this that Mom values Native lives less than she values the romantic story she tells herself about American history. I wondered if Tougas ever considered having Charlotte ask something like, "Well, if you knew, why did you say what you just said?" and I wonder what Mom would reply. "Because I weighed the injustice of the atrocity of Westward Invasion against the mental discomfort it would cause me to let go of my romantic vision of history and decided to prioritize my gooey feelings," perhaps? Or maybe a simple, "Because I know, but I just don't care that much about Native people." 

On page 275-278, Rose comes clean and admits to vandalizing the Ingalls museum. Her speech is the closest the book comes to actually interrogating racism, and I’m sure will be referenced by many as evidence that Laura Ingalls Is Ruining My Life is, in fact, anti-racist. Mom puts lavender oil in a diffuser to help them relax and stay focused on why she did it. Here’s what Rose says (275-278):

“I read Charlotte’s school assignment about the Trail of Tears. The article was about how settling the West destroyed the Indians. They literally had to walk hundreds of miles so the pioneers could have their own land. And they got sick and there wasn’t enough food and the weather was terrible, but the government didn’t care and the pioneers didn’t care. The Indians had to keep marching, and tons of them died. Tons!”

At that point, Mom dabbed the oil behind her ears.

Rose said, “We have museums all over the United States bragging about how great we are because we built a new country. We have books and movies and songs. But our stories are wrong.” Her shoulders slumped. “Can I try some of that oil?”

I put a drop on my finger and rubbed it on Rose’s wrist. Freddy said, “I know what you mean, but I’m glad we’re here. I’m glad there are fifty states and roads and the Internet and that I get to live in this country.”

“If you’re glad, then you don’t know what I mean,” Rose said.


“So you decided to spray-paint Laura’s building because the government was terrible to the Indians?” Freddy said. “Am I the only one who thinks that’s ridiculous?”

“No. I think it’s ridiculous,” I said.

“Let her finish,” Mom said. “Go on, Rose.”

Rose frowned. “Here’s something I bet you didn’t know. In the first version of Little House On the Prairie, which came out almost one hundred years ago, Laura described the prairie like this: ‘There the wild animals wandered and fed as though they were in a pasture that stretched much farther than a man could see, and there were no people. Only Indians lived there.’ I memorized it.”

Freddy thought for a minute. “So? What’s your point?”

“She said no people. Only Indians. She basically said Indians aren’t people.”

Slowly Freddy’s face registered her point. Mom said, “I don’t remember that. I’ve read that book a dozen times.”

“Someone wrote to the publisher, and they changed the word people to settlers for the next printing. Laura felt terrible above it. She didn’t mean it the way it came out. Still, it bugs me. I can’t stop thinking about it. That’s why I quit reading the biography.”

“I had no idea,” Mom said. “How did I not know this?”

“That’s the way people were back then,” Freddy said. “It’s not right to blame people now for what happened one hundred years ago. Laura Ingalls didn’t force the Indians to move. The museum ladies didn’t force them to move, either. Do you want us to demolish all our cities and make it buffalo land again?”

“That’s not the point!” Rose yelled. “You got me all side-tracked.”

I love what Rose says. Of all the characters in the book, she’s the one who interests me most, because what she learns about Manifest Destiny, the Transcontinental Railroad, and the Trail of Tears is real for her. She has, at this point, learned that a societal sickness leads to dehumanizing Native people, and to a museum celebrating Manifest Destiny--and upon learning this, she actively changes.  Early in the book, Rose is downright tickled to be living in Walnut Grove, and wants to be Laura in the annual town play (p. 94). Upon learning that her prior version of reality is wrong, Rose changes her mindset and her behavior. Is she right to spray paint the museum? Of course not, but that act of vandalism is trivial compared to the larger systemic and cultural problems with which she is grappling.

Unfortunately, Charlotte’s reactions, and the ultimate note on which the book finishes, undo much of the good work Rose does in these few pages (and make me wonder if it’s possible for an author to write a character--Rose, in this case--who understands the world better than the author does).

On page 288, Charlotte and Mrs. Newman again discuss the Trail of Tears article, which, again, was introduced on page 126. Charlotte still hasn’t read it, but lies and says she did. Mrs. Newman isn’t fooled, and they talk about why Charlotte hasn’t read it (p. 288-289):

“Did you read the article about Native Americans?”

“The Trail of Tears article?” My eyes went wide, and I stumbled through an answer, trying to remember what Rose had said about it. “Yes. It was interesting and fascinating. And very sad, too, which is why the word tears is in it. Because it’s so sad.”


“Why? Why haven’t you read it?”

I shrugged.


“I don’t need to read it to know it’s really, really bad. I’ve read enough about westward expansion.”

“Reading and understanding are two different things.”

“I know terrible things happened to Native Americans. And terrible things happened to the Chinese with the railroad and poor white farmers in the Depression and all the people fighting over who owned Texas. I’m twelve. I can only take so much sad stuff and guilt before I get Prairie Madness.” Mrs. Newman didn’t respond, so I said, “I will read it. I promise. But not for a while.”

Mrs. Newman thought for a moment. “You have the intellectual capacity to think critically about history. I didn’t consider how overwhelming it might be.”

“I don’t want to hate Laura Ingalls or pioneers or America.”

“That’s absolutely not my intention. It’s just that our country’s story is more complicated than most people realize. Laura’s story is more complicated.”

My heart sank when I read this.  My hopes were up so high, after Rose’s awakening, and then… sigh.

The effect of this passage--especially after Rose’s speech--is to recenter and re-prioritize Whiteness at the expense of Native people.

Let’s unpack. Charlotte says the Trail of Tears is “sad… which is why the word tears is in it.”  It’s supposed to be funny, a moment of lightness and humor. Four thousand people died on the Trail of Tears. Charlotte, and Tougas, trivialize their deaths in this passage. And, ultimately, Charlotte makes an active and conscious decision to prioritize her own comfort over all else. Children younger than Charlotte died because of the 1830 Indian Removal Act (Trail of Tears); Charlotte decides she can’t even read about that, and Mrs. Newman comforts and her affirms her fragility in this moment.

Read this again from the point of view of a Cherokee, Choctaw, Seminole, Creek, or Chickasaw child who has heard about the Trail of Tears since infancy. That child does not have the luxury of waiting until they’re older to understand the concept of genocide. How would Charlotte’s joke about the Trail of Tears, and her decision to wait to read the article until she can handle it better, land with that child? What about Charlotte’s, and Mrs. Newman’s, declaration that they don’t want to hate Laura Ingalls or the government forces that destroyed Native lives--how would a Native child, who feels rightful and understandable rage, feel upon reading those words? I’d feel minimized, gaslit, like my and my people’s concerns had been erased--for the billionth time.

What makes this so infuriating is that it comes on the heels of Rose’s speech about the injustices of westward invasion. It’s like Tougas dangles a book, a world, in which White people are forced to reckon with the ugliness of Manifest Destiny and all that came along with it--and then snatches it away, says “Nope, sorry, Native kids, we have to comfort and prioritize the status quo at your expense.  Again.”

Another example of Tougas’ dangling, then snatching away, genuine equity for Native people is in her treatment of Gloria and Teresa, who run the Ingalls museum. Remember that Gloria and Teresa rejected an essay that argued for justice for Native people (p. 134) Julia tells Charlotte:
“She [Lanie] wrote that we should have a museum for Native Americans because they lived around here first, and they had these battles with settlers.  She said the early farmers shouldn't be called settlers because the land was already settled. They were more like invaders." Julia leaned forward and whispered, "My grandma heard Mrs. Newman liked Lanie's essay because it showed critical thinking, but Gloria and Teresa said no way. Basically I was the second choice.” 
I was sure, when I read this, that at some point Charlotte (or Rose) would hold Gloria and Teresa accountable; that they would have to take a hard look at what it meant to shut down, refuse to hear, a truth-telling essay, and what messages they sent to Native kids when they refused to give a platform to a voice advocating for a Native museum. This never happens. In fact, later in the book Charlotte thinks well of Gloria and Teresa as support for her (p. 149):
Actually, the people who'd been my cheerleaders lately weren't my family.  Mrs. Newman. Gloria. Teresa...” 
Gloria and Teresa also serve to further the Charlotte-as-suspect plotline; thanks to a misunderstanding, Charlotte yells at them, which lends credence to the theory that she was the vandal. Towards the end of the book, Charlotte realizes she needs to apologize to them.

At the end of the day, Laura Ingalls Is Ruining My Life gives lip service to anti-racist and anti-colonialist advocates. Their arguments and voices are given minimal space in the book; Rose’s speech is great, but it’s three pages in a 296-page book. The book prioritizes White comfort and White fragility over justice and equity for Native people (who are never actually given a voice--no tribe is named, no Native individuals are referenced or quoted, and oh, how great would it have been for Charlotte and co. to delve deep into The Birchbark House series?). Characters like Gloria and Teresa who enact and perpetuate White supremacy are not held accountable, but are framed as overwhelmingly sympathetic--nice White ladies. And ultimately, according to Laura Ingalls Is Ruining My Life, while it’s important for everyone to understand the complexity of history, it’s equally important for White kids to wait until they feel up to the task of learning about other people’s trauma, and to not hate Laura Ingalls or her people. Indeed, the Author’s Note leads me to believe that Tougas is an unapologetic Ingalls fan--she recommends three biographies of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and alas, no books authored by Native people.

While reading Laura Ingalls Is Ruining My Life, and especially at the end, I thought over and over of this quote from The Lines We Cross by Randa Abdel-Fattah. This line is spoken by Mina, who came to Australia as an Afghan refugee, to Michael, a White character learning about his racial privilege (p. 219):
“You want me to make it easier for you to confront your privilege because God knows even antiracism has to be done in a way that makes the majority comfortable? Sorry... I don’t have time to babysit you through your enlightenment.”
Charlotte’s choice to read the essay or not--to include knowledge of the Trail of Tears in her consciousness, or wait until she’s ready to handle it--that choice is the essence of White privilege.

We White people are getting better at making a show of anti-racism. Our methods are becoming more sophisticated. We acknowledge the anti-racist argument, provide it lip service and limited space, before snatching back control of the narrative and recentering our own comfort. Read Laura Ingalls Is Ruining My Life as the next step, the next generation, the next wave of racism. Watch closely, especially if you’re White; racism is evolving before our very eyes.