When Linda Sue Parks was a little girl, she loved the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. She read them so many times, she learned many passages by heart. She would lie in bed at night and dream of living in De Smet, South Dakota with Laura in the 1880s and becoming her best friend. But then she came to a painful realization. Laura’s mother would not have allowed Laura to be her friend because she was Asian.
In the Little House books, Ma freely expresses her disdain for Native Americans while Pa takes part in a blackface minstrel show. The Little House books still have great value. I have enjoyed reading them with my own children, taking time to acknowledge the racism inherent in them. Those books were a product of a different time and they reflect that. I am a firm believer that we should not judge historical figures by our own standards, standards that will no doubt also change with time. Parks also acknowledges that reality. In writing her new book, Prairie Lotus, she both honors the legacy of the Wilder books while challenging the racism that is part of them.
In Prairie Lotus, Hanna is a half-Chinese, half-white teen who moves with her father to LaForge, Dakota Territory, with her father. The two have moved several places since the death of her Chinese mother, trying to find a place where they can live a quiet life. Hanna dreams of going to school, but while the teacher is willing to have her, the parents of most of the other students pull their children out of the school when she attends. She wants to be a dressmaker (a skill she learned from her mother) for her father’s dress goods shop, but her father still sees her as a little girl, unable to fill her mother’s shoes. As Hanna and her father attempt to make her life in this small town, she faces discrimination, both blatant and under the surface, yet she continues to strive to make her way in the world.
Prairie Lotus would make a great addition to a literature or history curriculum for ages 10 and up, whether as a read-aloud or independent reading (There is one story line about two men who attempt to attack Hanna; she escapes, but the community brands her as a “loose” woman and uses it as one more reason to not associate with her). It invites discussion about racism, both historical and in our world today, and cultivates empathy for those of different cultures.
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