Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park. Published March 3, 2020.
Linda Sue Park must have read and loved Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books as much as I did as a kid.
Reading about Hanna in Prairie Lotus hits some deep emotional beats I remember living through with Laura: School trouble. Recitations. Hoop skirts going through doorways. Oranges. Dresses of fine lawn. There’s a Laura-like character named Bess, the name that the real-life Almanzo Wilder called his wife. Even the large-print font looks like the font of the Little House books. Some of these similarities don’t refer to headline moments from the series, just details inscribed indelibly into memory after countless childhood rereads.
Linda Sue Park must have deplored the racism in the Little House books as much as I did, or more. It’s clear what the white settlers of 1880s Dakota Territory thought of Native people. The books’ brief references to black Americans are overshadowed by Pa’s participation in a minstrel show. Asian Americans had no place at all in the books; Koreans had not even entered the U.S. at that time. It would have been harder for grade-school me to relate to the books if Laura Ingalls Wilder had written her image of me into them. I got off easy.
Unlike Hanna, when I was a kid, I did have an Asian immigrant mom around to teach me things. But they were Korean and immigrant things, not the white-people American things that almost every other kid knew in upstate New York in the 1970s.
To know what they knew, I read. I learned from Laura Ingalls Wilder that American girls churn butter, sew buttonholes, wear calico, win spelling bees. I still feel the romance, forty years later, when I watch sheep shearing at wool festivals. The Little House books taught these stories in such nourishing detail, it felt like having a mother show me. Those books made me. I constructed myself according to their instructions, step by step. I’ve never made cheese or shaved a shingle, but I have the stubbornly unshakeable impression that I know how. Some of the cooking and handwork I do is a tribute to those books. They lodged in my deep consciousness in a formative way. It’s been over forty years and I still have whole sections nearly memorized.
The Little House books are fundamentally racist, and also, the way they are part of me is too ingrained and love-filled for me to eject.
Judging by Prairie Lotus, Linda Sue Park knows exactly how this feels.
The book opens with a covered wagon trip. Hanna, age 14, is traveling with her white father. Her Chinese mother is dead, and they had to leave most of her mother’s belongings behind, including her mirror. They are moving east from Los Angeles Chinatown to Dakota Territory, where there are no Asian or half-Asian people.
The first people Hanna meets in Dakota Territory are a group of Ihanktonwan women and girls, black-haired like Hanna. The most senior of the women, Wichapiwin, sees that Hanna does the cooking for herself and her father and gives her a root vegetable called timpsina, prairie turnip. Hanna realizes later that Wichapiwin was being motherly toward her.
Hanna’s mother had taught her about roots, too: in China, Hanna’s grandfather had been a ginseng merchant. Before she died, she told Hanna that she was half-and-half, as well. Her father had come to China from “a beautiful place, a secret place. Called Korea. Americans don’t know that place” (p51).
I read that and gasp-laughed at the warmth of Linda Sue Park’s magic. I didn’t know she was going to put secret Koreanness in this American story that predated Korean Americans. If you’d told me, I wouldn’t have been able to guess how such a thing could be managed. But it’s so logical. Of course Koreans traveled to China, even during the time Korea was rightly known as “the Hermit Kingdom,” very much a secret place. And yes, when I was a small child, it was true enough that Americans didn’t know Korea. When white kids tugged at the corners of their eyes to taunt me, they called me Chinese. But now, an author has shown me how I can be in this American girl story after all.
Hanna’s relationship with her father is more tense than Laura’s with her parents. He is imperfect, occasionally arbitrary, often moody with grief. It’s fascinating how she negotiates with him, and brave of her. His patriarchal power over her melds with his white privilege to create an unease that brings home the constant tension of Hanna’s place in society.
I deeply appreciate Park’s middle-grade handling of the sexual element to the harassment that Asian American women often face, especially half-Asian women. Hanna’s mother warns her, delicately, that most white men think Chinese women are “for — for fun.” Chilling. Because actually, it wasn’t completely true that Americans didn’t know Korea when I was a little girl in the 1970s. Sometimes, a few of them did. Men, always, who had been stationed there. Who would say hello to me in Korean, expecting some sort of reaction, and sometimes, “Are you Korean? I thought so. I can tell.”
Much of Hanna’s negotiation with her father is about creating and claiming spaces. A new home. A doorway big enough for women to walk through. A sewing space where she can make her living and become independent. She assumes, with a breathtaking matter-of-factness, that her race means she will never know romance. The cover art for the book is a revelation: Hanna showing her half-white, half-Chinese face in defiance and dignity.
It’s quite the unusual experience for me to feel such trust in a writer’s perspective, down to the most niche detail. I love Hanna’s Sherlock Holmesian reading of her classmate Dolly’s brown poplin dress, using clues visible to her as a seamstress. I love the catalogue of fabric types that I didn’t know as a child, but do now: muslin, calico, poplin, challis, lawn. I smiled to read the grades that Park wrote for Hanna because I think they might be higher than Laura’s. I don’t have Little Town on the Prairie at hand, so I don’t remember what Laura’s were exactly, but I guess I wasn’t the only Asian American reader who was taken aback that some of them were so low…and that an author would admit it in print! My favorite grade is Hanna’s 100 for orthography, a subject that Wilder omitted from her account in Little Town. That 100 sparkles out at me like an Asian-girl wink from Park.
Having established her authority within the tone of the Little House books, Park deftly creates original material. Especially memorable to me is Hanna’s “strange kind of revenge” on a racist classmate, one that hurts no one but feels uncannily powerful. It’s a pure artist move.
Park also writes the kind of delicious passages about material details that are a classic mainstay of children’s literature, whether they’re Laura’s descriptions, Ellen Montgomery buying a writing desk in The Wide Wide World, or Harry Potter in Diagon Alley. Hanna has inherited one treasure: the magnificent box that Hanna’s father created to her mother’s specifications, fitted with dozens of compartments. Hanna lovingly fills these spaces with hundreds of her mother’s buttons.
Rows by size. Columns by color. The square in the lower left corner contained the smallest white button. Above it, she put the next size, also white. Each square held a bigger button until she reached the top left, which held the largest white button.
In the next column she put cream-colored buttons. Then beige, shades of brown, gray, black. After that came the rainbow colors, red, orange, yellow, shades of green and blue, and finally violet. Several more columns and rows held novelty buttons, shaped like animals or stars or cherries.
The buttons were pretty to look at and pleasantly smooth under her fingertips. The orderliness of each button in its proper place was soothing.
This passage feels nourishing, a calm lesson in process and pleasure. It made me want to touch humble things and small luxuries, and put them in order. I’m making a lap quilt in tribute to Hanna’s button box. I tested out a few pattern possibilities, including button-like circles or embroidered lotuses. But in the end, I chose a simple pattern, just two and a half-inch squares of calico in a grid of half-inch sashing, for my American-girl quilt. I’ll post a final picture to this blog when it’s done.
Thank you, Linda Sue Park, for taking the Little House books and showing me where the roots and mirrors could be.