Prairie Lotus

This book cover shows a Chinese-American girl in he 1800s putting a hat on.

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Book Review

In Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park, an Asian-American girl named Hanna lives in the Midwest in the 1880s. When confronted with prejudice, she learns the power of self-respect and friendship.

Plot Summary

In the 1880s, 14-year-old Hanna and her father move from Los Angeles to the Dakota Territory. Hanna’s Chinese mother has died, and her American father wants to make a fresh start. They plan to open a dress goods shop in a settlement called LaForge.

Hanna hopes for good things in their new home. She loves to sew and sketch designs, and she has dreams of being a dressmaker. She also wants to graduate from school, which was her mother’s dying wish for her. But she’s used to being scrutinized and rejected for her Asian appearance, and she worries she won’t fit in at school.

Hanna’s teacher, Miss Walters, breaks the ice by having students talk about the towns from which they came. Hanna’s classmates are kind at first, and Hanna enjoys learning. But concerned parents call a meeting of the schoolboard. They suggest Hanna, like blacks and Native Americans, shouldn’t be allowed in class with their children. After this, some of Hanna’s classmates begin to bully her. When she continues to attend school, nearly all of the parents refuse to let their children go. Miss Walters allows her to graduate early so her presence won’t hinder the others.

Hanna helps Papa design the shop. Despite his refusal to let Hanna be his seamstress, she creates the types of work spaces she knows she will need. She pays her schoolmate, Bess, to be her assistant seamstress. They create a beautiful dress to hang in the display window for the opening.

Two drunk men accost Hanna on the street one day. They leer and make rude comments before one seizes her harshly, injuring her and ripping her dress. Hanna distracts them long enough to get to the shop, where Bess cleans her wounds. Bess says Hanna should report what happened. But experience has taught Hanna white people always believe other white people. Rumors begin to spread through town that Hanna brought the attack on herself. Most of the townspeople plan to boycott the opening of Papa’s store.

When Hanna realizes she can’t remedy this problem on her own, she urges Bess to help. Bess and Miss Walters go door to door and talk to the townspeople. They explain what happened to Hanna and urge their neighbors to support the new shop. The store’s opening is a success, and many people place orders to have dresses made. Papa admits he didn’t want Hanna to be his seamstress because he was afraid people would think he was using her as a servant. They decide they have to stop worrying so much about what others think of them. Hanna realizes everyone doesn’t have to approve of her, as long as she has several good friends on whom she can rely.

Christian Beliefs

Hanna and her father sometimes attend church. The head of the school board urges parents to behave like Christians when things get out of hand at a meeting. Mama was raised by missionaries and educated by a Christian woman after they died. Papa tithes at the church, because Mama had always insisted on it out of gratitude to her missionary guardians. Some townspeople are more willing to shop at Papa’s store when they learn part of his income goes to support the church.

Other Belief Systems

Racism is a prevalent theme throughout the book. Mothers pull their children close when Hanna is near. They comment on Chinese people’s lack of cleanliness or morals. Concerned parents fight to ban Hanna from school, arguing that since the laws won’t allow “coloreds” or “Indians,” it should be the same for Chinamen. After these parents start complaining about Hanna, their kids bully her by destroying her property or calling her names like “dirty Chinaman” or “slanty eyes.”

Hanna learns her parents had to marry in an unincorporated territory since interracial marriage was prohibited in the States. Papa’s afraid to let Hanna work as a dressmaker because he doesn’t want anyone to think he’s taking advantage of her. People had accused him of marrying Mama just so he could have a lifelong servant. Papa even questions himself about whether some part of him might have been thinking that way.

Hanna often mentions the U.S. government’s injustice toward the Native Americans in the area as well. She’s frustrated the government has stolen land from them and broken treaties. Hanna tells her father about some friendly Native American women she’s met near town and asks Papa not to mention it. He reports it to the town sheriff anyway, and Hanna fears she’s endangered the women.

Authority Roles

After the Gold Rush, Papa moved to Los Angeles and met Mama. Prone to anger, he grew even more irritable and resentful after Mama died. Mama, half-Chinese and half-Korean, was orphaned as a toddler in China and raised by American missionaries. Mama’s lungs were damaged in a fire when racially motivated riots broke out in L.A. She died after six years of suffering. Mama’s words about strength and kindness guide Hanna through difficult, lonely days. Miss Walters supports Hanna’s right to attend school and tries to help her fit in. She becomes increasingly bold in her willingness to advocate for Hanna.

 

Profanity & Violence

In the Chinatown riots, white men lynched more than half a dozen Chinese men. They ransacked houses, looted buildings and started fires.

Two drunk men follow and leer at Hanna, making suggestive comments about Chinese girls. One man grabs her on the shoulder near her neck and digs his nails into her flesh. He also tears part of her sleeve. She suffers from ongoing nightmares after this.

Papa demonstrates some anger and violent tendencies before they settle in LaForge. None of these incidents are described in graphic detail.

Sexual Content

Mama warns Hanna about white men and their bullying. She says most white men think Chinese women are only “for fun,” but they would never marry one.

Discussion Topics

How does Miss Walters’ help Hanna feel more comfortable with her classmates? What kind of questions can you ask others that may break down barriers of fear or prejudice?

In what ways does Hanna advocate for herself in order to have the life she desires? When have you had to prove that you could handle a challenging responsibility, like Hanna did with school or dressmaking?

What did Mama mean when she told Hanna having a better life starts by doing one small thing? What are some small things Hanna does to improve her situation? What are some small things you have done, or could do, that would improve your life?

What has Hanna learned from Mama about dealing with prejudice? What are some ways she puts these lessons into action? When have you or someone you know faced prejudice?

When does Hanna realize she needs to rely on others’ help? Why is it sometimes hard for you to ask for help from other people?

Which laws seem unjust to Hanna? How did her parents avoid breaking the state law when they got married? What does the Bible say about obeying your leaders? When, if ever, is it OK to disobey the laws and rulers of your land?

What does Hanna realize about receiving the approval of everyone in town? When have you tried too hard to get approval from others? What happened?

Additional Comments

Obedience: Hanna knows she’s supposed to obey Papa, but she believes there are times she simply can’t, and there have been more of those times over the past year. She says this to explain herself as she prepares to sneak out and attend a meeting the school board is having about her.

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Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book’s review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

 

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