“Prairie Lotus” a New Take on Laura Ingalls Wilder

by | Feb 21, 2021

Anyone who loved the Laura Ingalls Wilder books will want to read Linda Sue Park’s latest story, “Prairie Lotus.” Park is a Newbery-award-winning author who grew up in the Chicago area. She, too, was a big fan of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books as a child.

In “Prairie Lotus,” Park tells a story from the same time period, but her main character, Hanna, is a young girl of mixed heritage.

 Hanna is 14. Her Chinese mother, May, has died and she and her white father, a merchant, are trying to make a life for themselves in the frontier town of LaForge, Dakota. Since Hanna’s mother’s death, the two of them have been moving east from Los Angeles, trying to find a new home, free of sad memories.

Anyone who loved the Laura Ingalls Wilder books will want to read Linda Sue Park’s latest story, “Prairie Lotus.” Park is a Newbery-award-winning author who grew up in the Chicago area. She, too, was a big fan of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books as a child.

Hanna has only been home schooled. But she dreams of graduating and receiving a diploma and so, finally, in LaForge, Papa agrees to let her attend school. Her past efforts to attend school have been stymied for two reasons. First, Papa and Hanna have moved a lot as they traveled east, and he’s needed her help at the store and second, there is an enormous amount of prejudice against someone like Hanna, who is part Asian.

The schoolteacher, Miss Walters, is a gem and works hard to integrate Hanna into the classroom, but quickly all but one family pull their children from school rather than have them attend with Hanna. This part is hard to read, and Hanna feels really bad. Should she leave school so the other kids can attend? But then she realizes that she is not preventing the others from coming to school, it is the ignorance of the townfolk — the students’ own parents — that is preventing the other children from gaining an education.

Park shows all the different ways people were cruel to Hanna, intentionally or not. Everything from being surprised at her good English to a classmate asking how well she could see out of her almond-shaped eyes. Hanna resents it when people think she’s caused a ruckus, even if she does everything right and it’s their own prejudice that is causing the problem.

These scenes mirror many of Park’s own experiences. I imagine it was both emotionally difficult and, perhaps, cathartic, to write them in “Prairie Lotus.”

One of my favorite parts of the book is Hanna’s love of sewing. The reader can tell that Park knows her stuff when it comes to this skill. Hanna gets excited about designing dresses: how she’d make them special but also practical, what fabric she’d use, how she’d take an element from one pattern and pair it with another. It feels like Hanna will bring an element of beauty and pleasure to the town, if her plan of becoming a dressmaker works out.

Her father resists Hanna’s plan. His reasons, which are explained late in the book, help the reader understand both his reluctance and the nature of others’ prejudices. You’ll have to read the book to see how this thread plays out!

The reader also meets a few local Native women from the Sioux nation. This is Park’s attempt to counterbalance the strong anti-Indian sentiment in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books. Park has done a lot of hard work to portray these women accurately. The author’s note and the acknowledgements give the reader a good understanding of what motivated Park to write “Prairie Lotus” and also the amount of research that went into her writing it. Even if you don’t often read authors’ notes, I would encourage you to read this one.

Park’s depiction of Hanna’s relationship with Papa is right on the money. Papa had to be a special man to marry a Chinese woman in those days, but … “irritable, snappish, dour, resentful — all his bad traits had worsened after Mama died.” He is trying hard to do the best he can for his daughter, who he loves, but he is conflicted; in order to establish a new business in a small town one must not rock the boat. Sending Hanna to school definitely rocked the boat.

Laura Ingalls Wilder books will never go out of style for those young readers who love imagining living in the late 1800s, living in sod houses, traveling by horse and the like. “Prairie Lotus” is a fantastic addition to that genre and may well expand the genre with its strong, positive and engaging portrayal of non-white characters.

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