Friday, April 23, 2021

Freeform Friday: Prairie Lotus - Linda Sue Park

In light of the devastating increase in violence toward people of Asian descent, we have added a new category label, AAPI Perspectives, which focuses on books written by authors of AAPI descent and/or stories with characters of AAPI descent.  As with our BIPOC Perspectives label, our hope is to help highlight books and authors from these valuable, diverse communities.  

Summary:  Dakota Territory, 1880.  When Hanna arrives in the town of LaForge, she sees possibilities.  Her father could open a shop on the main street.  She could go to school, if there is a school, and even realize her dream of becoming a dressmaker -- provided she can convince Papa, that is.  She and Papa could make a home here. 

But Hanna is half-Chinese, and she knows from experience that most white people don't want neighbors who aren't white themselves.  The people of LaForge have never seen an Asian person before; most are unwelcoming and unfriendly -- but they don't even know her!  Hanna is determined to stay in LaForge and persuade them to see beyond her surface.

In a setting that will be recognized by fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books, this compelling story of resolution and persistence, told with humor, insight, and charm, offers a fresh look at a long-established view of history.  (Summary from book flap - Image from amazon.com)

My Review:  Sometimes a book's dedication is just that -- a dedication -- and other times it sets the tone for the whole book.  Park's dedication is the latter -- To all those whose stories have been erased or silenced in the past: May your stories sing and shape and color the future.   

Prarie Lotus tells the story of a 14-year-old girl named Hanna who has traveled with her father to railroad town of LaForge in the Dakota Territories in order to set up the town's first 'dress goods' store.  Still grieving the loss of Hanna's mother, the two are hopeful that they might be able to start a new life together, but it soon becomes apparent that while the people of LaForge are more than willing to welcome Hanna's white father., they are decidedly less amenable to welcoming Hanna, who is half Chinese.  Hanna is proud of who she is and hurt that others don't see her Chinese heritage in the same light. Although her father wants to keep her safe and hidden, Hanna longs to fulfill her mother's dream that she attend and graduate school.  As classes begin, Hanna is subjected to cruel behavior and mounting opposition to her presence in the classroom.  Disappointed but undeterred, she sets out to change minds, hopeful that if the townspeople get to know her, they will set aside their prejudice.  

Prairie Lotus was easy to read; I breezed through it in an afternoon without breaking a sweat. The setting and Hanna's day-to-day experiences explore what life might be like in a budding railroad town.  Taken alone, it makes for a good story.  However, Prairie Lotus is far more than just 'a good story.'  Although set in the 1880s, much of this book has real-life applications and touches on many important concepts, like kindness, confidence, persistence, inclusivity, thoughtfulness, the effects of trauma, respect for the elderly, and especially racial stereotypes, overt racism, and what to do when unfairness is sanctioned by law.

In my opinion, the most valuable aspect of this book is the opportunity it offers to talk about important issues like racism, racial stereotypes, and racially motivated violence.  Author Linda Sue Park notes that the racism Hanna faces is largely autobiographical and that she wrote this book in an attempt to counteract some of the painful experiences in her childhood (where she was often ridiculed for her Korean heritage).  Just like so many young girls, Park loved the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House books as a kid and longed to see herself on the page, but was hurt and confused by the treatment of Native and African-Americans.  In Prairie Lotus, not only does Hanna observe how she is treated by the townspeople, she also observes the treatment of the local indigenous population and, unlike Little House, the author includes a more accurate view of their treatment and respectful view of their culture. Above all, I loved that Hanna is proud of her heritage and culture, unwavering in her conviction that she deserves to be treated just like everyone else. 

Praire Lotus is also helpful on issues of friendship.  For example, Hanna enters school cautiously, aware that many people will not react positively to her presence.  She carefully observes her classmates, assessing their behavior, and trying to find a safe friend.  Hanna's way of evaluating potential friends based on their actions, rather than appearance, popularity, or obvious wealth, sets an example for readers who might also be trying to find true friends. 

Prairie Lotus it is a valuable addition to children's literature, not only as an inspiring, moral-based story about a young girl who finds the courage to make a life for herself in the face of adversity, but specifically because of its ability to open the door for parents to have important conversations with their children. I would recommend this book to anyone who loves Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House series, and especially to anyone who hopes to raise children who are more aware and inclusive.  

My Rating:  4.25 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  This story addresses racism towards Asian and Native American people.  Hanna experiences racism from classmates and townspeople.  Two drunk men accost and briefly attempt to sexually assault her (mildly descriptive), while making stereotypical comments about Chinese women.  The term "Indian" (the common vernacular of the time) is used in regards to Native Americans.

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