Sunday, January 21, 2018

Reviewing While White: Laura Ingalls is Ruining My Life by Shelley Tougas

Laura Ingalls is Ruining My Life, by Shelley Tougas. Roaring Brook Press.

Reviewed by Allie Jane Bruce.

NB - I read, and use page numbers from, a galley of this book.

It was with trepidation that I picked up Laura Ingalls is Ruining My Life. My feelings about the Little House series are overwhelmingly negative. The more I read analyses of race and racism in these books (for a start on this subject, check out this and this), the more I think this one needs to go the way of the dodo. To be fair, I never liked the books (they just were never my cup of tea, even when I was a kid) so I’m not battling any nostalgia or fondness, as many of my colleagues are when reflecting on these books or contemplating letting them go. As I read the description of Laura Ingalls is Ruining My Life, I wondered: Is this an homage to the Little House books? Or is it critical? I then tried to let go of any questions or expectations, and as much as I possibly could, approach the book with a blank slate (although I did bring what I know about history and critical race theory, as I bring those to everything).

White, 12-year-old Charlotte is one of three siblings; her single mother, whose irresponsible nature and love of talking about “creative energy” frustrate and irritate Charlotte, moves them from place to place in search of inspiration and a “spark” that will finally make her a successful writer. Of all the places they’ve lived, Charlotte hates Walnut Grove, a home of Little House writer Laura Ingalls, the most. Her twin brother, with whom she’s always shared borderline-psychic superpowers, drifts from her and reinvents himself as a popular kid. Unable or unwilling to make friends herself, Charlotte pretends to need remedial help with her schoolwork so that she can spend lunchtime in the classroom with her teacher. Undeceived, her wise teacher assigns her a series of essays about the real history of Walnut Grove, Manifest Destiny, and the ways that Westward Expansion (which I call Westward Invasion… but we’ll get there…) impacted the people and environment around them. As Charlotte reads and learns (she reads a new essay, and learns something new, every 30 or 40 pages, a device I found contrived and clunky), she gradually settles in and starts to make friends; but just when things are looking up for her, Mom falters and decides it’s time to move again. This accessible, digestible middle-grade realistic fiction will delight some; cynical and unromantic, Charlotte is a memorable and captivating personality. Some readers will also hail it as a nuanced, progressive look at the Little House series; nevertheless, as I argue, it ultimately fails to actually interrogate the racism and problems in the Little House series--instead, it makes a pretense at interrogating them. The book therefore serves to evolve, rather than interrupt, racism; and it does so in the guise of interrupting racism.

For my close reading of the book, and my argument and conclusions about how it evolves racism, visit my guest post at American Indians In Children’s Literature. There, I argue that Laura Ingalls is Ruining My Life is the next generation of racism. Watch closely, especially if you’re White; racism is evolving before our very eyes.

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