Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park. Clarion Books Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, NY, 2020.
In her author’s note, Linda Sue Park, an avid Little House on the Prairie fan, writes, “I wrote Hanna’s story as an attempt at a painful reconciliation… As a child, I would lie in bed night after night, imagining that I, too, lived in De Smet in the 1880s, and that I was Laura’s best friend…Even at the height of my passion for those books, there were parts that I found puzzling and distressing…Ma hated Native Americans…Pa takes part in a blackface minstrel show.”
Park, of Korean American heritage, goes on to say that in 1880 there were no Koreans in America. They emigrated later, in the early 1900s and landed in Hawaii, not the mainland. There were, however, Chinese laborers here building the railroad. Many resided in California. So, when deciding to re-imagine the “Little House” books, she created a completely unique character, a girl of mixed Korean/Chinese/White ancestry. Her mother has died, and her white father has decided to move from California to the plains of South Dakota.
While her father is busy building a store in town, Hanna is trying to get along in a new school. Her mother wanted Hanna to finish school and Hanna insists on it, even when her father has doubts. Her real dream, though, is to become a dressmaker, like her mother. Soon after enrolling in school, most of the students are pulled out by parents suspicious of this new, “Chinese girl.” With only three children left in the school, Hanna manages to make friends with one girl, Bess. Bess eventually helps Hanna sew a dress to be displayed in the window for the grand opening of her father’s shop. But when Hanna is blamed for an incident with a drunken man, her friend’s mother forbids her to help Hanna any longer and people are determined to boycott the store.
“Little House” fans will appreciate Prairie Lotus. It is not only a lovely homage to the positive aspects of those books, but also a much-needed reality check on their troubling racism. Park traveled to South Dakota (LaForge is modeled on De Smet, with houses and businesses in the same locations) and Missouri to research her story, as well as the Pine Ridge Reservation. By respectfully portraying Native Americans and Hanna, a mixed-race character, as well as showing the obstacles those groups faced, Park has added an important work of fiction on the subject of the settlement of the American West.