A Different Kind of Pioneer Story: Racism and Empathy in PRAIRIE LOTUS
In PRAIRIE LOTUS, Linda Sue Park explores a time and place similar to the world of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books…but also very different. Guest blogger Michelle describes the strengths and weaknesses of the latest book from the 2002 Newbery Medalist:
PRAIRIE LOTUS deserves serious Newbery Award consideration because it satisfies the criteria of being distinctive and excellently crafted.
This story is distinctive because it features Hanna, a fourteen-year-old pioneer girl who is half-Chinese and half-white. There are obvious parallels to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE books, such as the setting of Dakota Territory during the 1880s. In her author’s note, Ms. Park shares that she grew up writing fan fiction inspired by Ms. Wilder’s books (though she surmised that as a Korean-American, she would likely not have been welcomed by people in this world).
A striking difference between PRAIRIE LOTUS and the LITTLE HOUSE books is that characters in this book exhibit empathy instead of contempt for the American Indians who were the original pioneers. I appreciate that the author did research to learn more about the Native peoples from the local area by visiting important sites and consulting with members from the nations who live there. This resulted in her correcting an accidental error in the way she described Wichapiwin’s communication with Hanna so that she motions with her lips instead of pointing with her finger. Ms. Park also deliberately included Dakota dialogue in the text to acknowledge language that has been ignored in children’s literature.
There are several people in town who exhibit obviously racist behavior (such as the white parents who object to having Hanna attend school with their children) or speak thoughtlessly to Hanna (e.g. her classmate Dolly asking if it’s hard for Hanna to see with her different shaped eyes). However, there are also characters who have more nuanced thinking, such as Philip Harris, the justice of the peace who defends Hanna’s right to get an education and listens to her when she advocates for the Indian women and children she meets out of town.
Besides a fresh perspective, this book offers beautiful prose. There were several sentences that I reread immediately with admiration. The dialogue sounds like actual spoken language, which is always a relief (I can’t stand when authors write dialogue that is overly eloquent or serves more to exposit plot than reveal character). The language is lovely and clear, advancing and never distracting from the story.
One criticism I have is that Hanna is so fully sympathetic a character that she’s almost too likable. We learn early on that she has lost her mother at a young age due to illness, which predisposes the reader to have pity for her. Hanna is kind, as evidenced by her sharing soup with a group of Indian women and children—even though she doesn’t know them, and her family has little food. She is competent–a strong student as well as a creative seamstress with business acumen (she cleverly strategizes how to entice more people to shop at her father’s dress goods store). She demonstrates courage by persisting in going to school even when classmates harass her and challenging Dolly and Mrs. Harris when they say things that reveal their prejudice and ignorance. Hanna also seems very aware of the unjustness of the United States government breaking their treaties with Indian nations, which stretched my credulity (though perhaps having being discriminated against makes her more sensitive to the plight of others).
Overall, I found this story fresh and thoughtful in its portrayal of Hanna as she misses her dead mother and deals with the microaggressions, outright aggressions, and loneliness she faces as a biracial girl living on the prairie. As fond as I was of the LITTLE HOUSE series growing up, I am glad to have a new recommendation for families who are looking for historical fiction in the same time and place.
Guest Blogger Michelle currently works as a branch manager in a public library, and she will always be a children’s librarian at heart. She has two daughters with whom she would like to read PRAIRIE LOTUS together one day.
About Steven Engelfried
Steven Engelfried was the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon until he retired in 2022 after 35 years as a full-time librarian. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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