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Diversity in Literature, Historical Fiction, Middle Grade Readers, Self-Image/Self-Esteem, Social Justice

PRAIRIE LOTUS by Linda Sue Park

Hanna is half-white and half-Chinese. (Her father is white and her mother was Chinese.) At the opening of the story Hanna and her father are moving from California to the Dakota Territory in the 1880’s after the death of her mother. Her father is a tailor and dry goods merchant and plans to open a shop in the new town. Hanna wants to complete her education and graduate and become a dressmaker in her father’s shop. Full of historical descriptions of cooking, cleaning, and living in a small prairie town, Prairie Lotus shows Hanna navigating the prejudice and cruelty that threatens to derail her dreams.

Prairie Lotus reads like a Little House on the Prairie book (by Laura Ingalls Wilder) with a more current, enlightened language and that is purposeful. The Author’s Note by Parks (a Korean-American) at the end of the book talks about her love for the Little House books as a child and about the elements of those books that disturbed her as well:

And Ma hated Native Americans. In several episodes throughout the series, she expresses that hatred. While I could not have articulated it at the time, I harbored a deeply personal sense of dismay over Ma’s attitude. Ultimately it meant that she would never have allowed Laura to become friends with someone like me. Someone with black hair and dark eyes and tan skin. Someone who wasn’t white.

I also read the Little House books as a young child. Being white and naive, I did not realize at the time how hurtful these types of episodes were; I simply attributed them to Wilder’s ‘not knowing any better’ and moved on to the parts of the stories I liked without internalizing their messages. I had that luxury, although I didn’t realize it at the time. As an adult I recognized and was appalled by the treatment and portrayal of any nonwhite characters in the Little House books. It is for this reason that I never read them aloud to my own children, and I do not believe either of them ever chose to read them either. But what about the historical value of the books? For me the trade-off didn’t make sense. Linda Sue Park has shown that a story set in this time period loses no historical significance or value with the inclusion of a multicultural lens.

I was interested in most of Hanna’s story. I found the same things boring in Prairie Lotus that I did in the Little House books: any detailed descriptions of cooking or cleaning chores. If you are looking for an alternative to the Little House books to share with young readers or just want a good historical fiction about that time period that does not pretend racism didn’t exist, but addresses it in a truthful manner, I highly recommend Prairie Lotus as a great choice!

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