When my daughter Emma was in second grade, she fell in love with the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. She was still rereading them in 7th grade. I know that they have become a controversial series in recent years, and I completely agree that the content of those books displays prejudices and stereotypes that diminish the culture, the history, and the rights of Native Americans. There are also scenes that display prejudices against other people of color. I wouldn’t assign those books in class now or even recommend them to a student without significant discussion of those biases.
Still, those books inhabit a soft spot in my heart because I know how much joy they brought to my daughter. She didn’t just read them. Like many readers of that series, she lived those books. She tried out recipes (maple snow candy) , she recited lines, she spoke like the characters (“By the great horned spoon, Sarah!” she once bellowed at her little sister), she referred to characters as though they were her real-life friends. We sometimes felt that Emma was a visitor from another era. She reread those books till the pages fell out. I once asked her about a scene I vaguely remembered from Farmer Boy. She not only recounted the exact details of the scene, she also told me on what page I would find it.
I’m not saying this as a defense of some of the books’ shortcomings. I’m just saying that Laura Ingalls Wilder fueled my daughter’s imagination, helped my daughter learn to read and write, and gave her comfort and friendship at times when she really needed it.
I was reminded of this series because I just finished reading Prairie Lotus, by Linda Sue Park. I loved this book, and at the same time, it made me a little sad. Emma would have loved it too. She would have read it many times, and I think she would have loved the main character, Hannah, even more than she loved Laura and Pa and Mary and Almanzo. Hannah is pushed to the margins of the frontier society, but she pushes back.
Though it is set in the 1880s in the Dakota Territory, just like the Little House books, Prairie Lotus gives us a very different perspective of that time on the frontier. Hannah is a “half and half” as her mother would say. Her father is white and her late mother was Chinese. After her mother dies, Hannah and her father travel east from Los Angeles to start a new life, escaping the riots and the bad memories of Los Angeles (I did not know about those Los Angeles riots).
In her author’s note, Linda Sue Park describes growing up in the Midwest, reading the Little House books and imagining herself in those times. She admits, though, that as a Korean-American, it took some mental gymnastics to imagine herself into those scenes. It turns out she is very good at mental gymnastics. In Lotus Prairie, the allusions and the similarities are part of an intentional homage to the series Park loved as a child. Reading this book, you half expect Laura and Pa to step into the front room of Edmunds Dress Shop. You wonder, though, how those characters would have treated Hannah.
The beauty of this story is that it confronts the racist systems and prevailing views that the Little House books sidestepped or even endorsed. Hannah questions the treatment of Native Americans, and she fights back against the hate and abuse that white settlers directed toward her and other people of color. It’s a modern book, but Hannah’s actions and observations don’t feel out of place or out of time.
This book might not have been well-received by Laura Ingalls Wilder’s readers in the 1930s, but who knows, maybe if Laura had met Hannah in a classroom in De Smet, the Wilder stories would have taken a different turn.
I know this: I’ll be rereading Prairie Lotus many times and trying all the mental gymnastics I can muster to imagine my Emma reading next to me.