The American frontier experience is quintessential in our cultural history. We all are drawn to imagining what it may have been like to experience life during that time — it's depicted in film, television and books.
One common example is Laura Ingalls Wilder's series of Little House books. But the perspective of the Ingalls family doesn’t reflect every American experience — something children’s book author Linda Sue Park wanted to explore more deeply in her latest work, Prairie Lotus.
"Whenever I write or read historical fiction, the question that I keep at the forefront of my mind is: who else was there?" says Sue Park. "Because history gets written by and about people who are in power and that's who [is featured] in our historical narratives. But history isn't just famous people and powerful people — history is all of us."
Set in the Dakota Territory during the 1880s, Prairie Lotus is about Hanna, a girl who's determined to fit in to her new community and fulfill her dreams of getting an education, becoming a dressmaker and making at least one friend. However, the townspeople’s prejudice against Asians presents many obstacles for the character, who is half Chinese.
Sue Park says that growing up she loved reading the Little House books and would often pretend that she was a character in the stories. But as an adult, she realized the shortcomings of the Ingalls' family experiences and how they would have never been hers as a Korean American.
"Hanna's experiences in being Asain when her neighbors are not is very much drawn from my own experiences," Sue Park notes. "And so this book is my attempt to have a conversation with the Little House books and to include some of the stories and some of the attitudes that are either left out or left wanting in those books."
For Sue Park, middle-grade books are made with the purpose of introducing young readers to "the notion that life isn't fair, and so what are you going to do about it?" This in turn doesn't feed young readers answers, but rather gets them to ask questions and sparks curiosity.
Sue Park says that if young readers can empathize with Hanna's experience, they can recognize that stories can be more complete through different perspectives — especially the ones outside of the dominant culture.
"If you tell a story from only one side, that story can actually be untrue because you are not getting all the information to make a complete picture," she notes. "So Prairie Lotus is an attempt to add some information, to add a perspective to make the story of the American west a little more complete."
Linda Sue Park is the author of bestseller A Long Walk to Water and the Newbery Medal book A Single Shard. Her latest middle-grade novel is called Prairie Lotus. She’ll be at the North Shore Library on March 5 to talk about it in partnership with Boswell Book Company.