Prairie Lotus – by Linda Sue Park, Clarion Books, 2020
Linda Sue Park grew up, like many of us, entranced by Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House Books. She describes her process of increasing awareness in a thoughtful afterword to Prairie Lotus, as she came to question her deep sense identification with Laura. Exploring the history of Asian Americans in the American west, as well as the parallel experiences of Native Americans, Park became compelled to tell a different story in Prairie Lotus, whose heroine, Hanna, is of mixed Chinese, Korean, and European ancestry. Her novel is partly a dialogue with Wilder’s book, but also an independent narrative of family life, friendship, racism, and resistance. Hanna is a complex creation, an intelligent girl who loves to read, a child marked with sadness by her mother’s early death, a daughter who struggles to communicate with a loving if imperfect father. She is also determined to identify injustice when she sees it and to try, within her limited freedom, to challenge it. Hanna is truly memorable.
The book begins with Hanna’s encounter with a group of Lakota Sioux women with whom she shares a meal. Their friendliness and generosity become a part of Hanna’s memories when, later in the story, she is forced to defend the Indians’ right to provide for themselves on their own land. Park’s language directly speaks to Wilder’s books, particularly an evocative scene in which Laura feels an almost desperate sense of connection to a Native American baby, although her own parents have repeatedly dehumanized the Indians who are their neighbors. Laura’s response had been inchoate: “Its eyes are so black,” Laura sobbed. “She could not say what he meant.” Hanna is older, and able to articulate her feelings; ‘As the Indians departed, one of the little girls turned her head to stare at Hanna. Her eyes were very dark, almost black, and at the same time, bright with curiosity.”
Of course, Hanna, unlike Laura, understands that her own status as a mixed-race person is almost as tenuous as that of the Sioux. As she and her father try to establish a business in a small town in the Dakota Territory, Hanna is subjected to relentless prejudice and unthinking hatred. Even the kind and well-intentioned teacher who recognizes her value is only able to devise a weak compromise when Hanna tries to attend school with white children. Yet Hanna and her father also encounter kindness, and find hope for a future with at least some opportunities for Hanna to use her gift at needlework, and to participate in the life of their community. Sadness, frustration, and anger coexist with empowerment when Hanna tries, indirectly, to confront all the obstacles imposed on her.
There is always a challenge in historical fiction of imposing out-of-context or anachronistic values on characters from the past. Park succeeds in giving Hanna a voice from her own time, but one that echoes in the present. Like Laura in Little House, Hanna somewhat idealizes her father; her attachment to him is even more weighted since he is her only parent. Park’s metaphor of a mirror for Hanna’s identification with her mother reverberates throughout the book, culminating in a moment of recognition when Hanna is able for the first time to see herself as a both a daughter and a separate person. The book’s final note of optimism seems almost unearned in light of the bitter reality that circumscribes Hanna’s life. Prairie Lotus does not pretend to answer all of Hanna’s questions about injustice, only to raise them, and to give Hanna her own unmistakable voice.