Julia Torres: I Read Asian and Pacific Islander American Books

Asian Pacific Islander Heritage month includes celebrating authors and their work. Today, activist, educator and librarian Julia Torres shares Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park (Clarion Books, 2020). Order a copy from your local independent bookseller.

 

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photo by Sonya Sones

Linda Sue Park was born in Urbana Illinois, to parents who had immigrated from Korea.is the author of many books for young readers, including the 2002 Newbery Medal winner A Single Shard and the New York Times bestseller A Long Walk to Water. Her most recent title is Prairie Lotus, a historical fiction middle-grade novel. When she’s not writing, speaking, teaching, or caregiving for her two grandchildren, she spends most of her time on equity/inclusion work for We Need Diverse Books and the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators. She is also on the advisory board of the Rabbit hOle national children’s literature museum project.

 

Julia Torres is a Librarian and Language Arts teacher at a public high school in Denver, Colorado and writes and publishes on Medium.com for her students and the wider audience. As an advocate for all students and public education, Julia facilitates workshops and professional conversations about equity, anti-bias/anti-racist education, culturally sustaining pedagogies, and literacy in the digital age.

One thought on “Julia Torres: I Read Asian and Pacific Islander American Books

  1. Criticism of the book has come from Native readers. The first I saw was at OfGlades, teens who blog at Indigo’s Bookshelf.

    My notes will evolve into a post at American Indians in Children’s Literature. I’m stuck on how to approach the post. What should I emphasize? Maybe I should do more than one post.

    For now I can say that many kids know little about who we are, past and present. A pervasive stereotype is that Native people were savages. Historical fiction and history textbooks tells us that Indians attacked and killed and scalped courageous and brave pioneers. These texts tell us that Native people were more like animals than human beings. I said “tell us” (present tense) because biased presentations are still around.

    Let’s look at the Native people in Prairie Lotus. (Note: I’m going to use “we” below rather than “you” or “Americans” but I want to be clear that I’m a Native woman who refuses to be a “we” and who works hard to help others see biases in how Native people are depicted.)

    In her post, Julia Torres read aloud from chapter one. Here’s my look at some of what I see in chapter one.

    Hanna stops “mid-stride” as she’s getting out of the wagon to do a home-making thing (make food) in the space they have set up as their home for the night (the camp site). She stops mid-stride because Indians are in that camp space, in a semi-circle between her and the camp fire where she’s planning to cook. She sees them and stops mid-stride.

    Let’s pause the reading right there and shift to us in the present day. As our eyes pass from one word to the next in our reading of Prairie Lotus, we’re right there with Hanna, stopping mid-stride. Through countless books and lessons we received in school, we’ve been taught how to think about Indians. We may remember the scene in Little House on the Prairie when the Indians go into the little house, uninvited. Those two invaded the safety of Laura’s home. Or, maybe we don’t remember that scene (maybe you didn’t read LHOP), but the emotion of a safe space being invaded by Indians is a pervasive thread in the US. Maybe you read The Matchlock Gun. Remember that scene when Indian men, weapons in hands, are chasing a white woman? Or, think about the captivity stories where Indians enter pioneer towns and smash babies heads on trees, kill white people, and take some family members away with them. Or, think about wild west movies where a stagecoach is being chased by Indians. See why we’re right there with Hanna, stopping mid stride? Did you notice you were right there with her? My point: we’re taught to be afraid of Indians. Whiteness teaches us to be afraid of Indians. So, by virtue of our education and socialization we’re primed to pause mid-stride, just like Hanna did.

    Hanna’s thought on seeing the group is that Papa had told her about how the government had forced them onto tracts of land (a quick note here that there’s more to say about reservations and agents but that I want to stay on point) and that they weren’t allowed to leave that land without permission from the Indian agent. Now–come to the present day and think about why Indians would need permission to leave the reservation. I think most would say that Indians had to be kept confined because otherwise, they were a threat to white settlers.

    My point (again) is that we’re taught to be afraid of Indians.

    I can’t recall any other books including information about Native peoples being confined to reservations. While I’m glad to see it in Prairie Lotus, I wonder if the way it is written affirms prior knowledge that Indians were a threat to white settlers? Some readers might think that was unfair or tragic but, nonetheless, necessary. What do you think?

    Back to Prairie Lotus.

    Hanna stopped mid-stride, but then, she sees that these Indians are women and girls and babies. They’re not men. Now–think back to the predominant image of an Indian that’s in those books and lessons I noted earlier. It is usually a male. When Hanna sees these are women, she’s not worried. We’re meant to think Indian women are ok. They’re not gonna hurt Hanna.

    We see that again when Papa returns from hunting and Hanna tells him about them. “Indians?” he says with a frown. Hanna quickly replies “Women and girls” who gave her a prairie turnip.

    Papa is glad that Hanna fed them. Doing so, it seems, means they’ve avoided trouble. What if Hanna had not fed them? (Also noting that Papa’s remark makes them see more animal than human.)

    As the story continues, Hanna sees/interacts with them again, later in the story. When Hanna tells Papa about seeing them again, he thinks he should report them to Mr. Harris who will (presumably) report them to the Indian Agent at Yankton. Hanna doesn’t want him to do that. She says “It might be different if–if I’d seen a big group of men riding out. But I saw women and children.” See? She speaks of women and children.

    She thinks Papa is going to let it be but then later, Mr. Harris wants to talk with her about them. She tells him it was “just a group of Indian women.” He asks what they were doing. She says they were digging for turnips. Then he asks if she saw any weapons. Hanna tells him no and he tells her that the pass system is to keep Indians from congregating for the purpose of war or raiding. A group of women harvesting turnips, he thinks, is not a threat and therefore, he says he doesn’t have to report them.

    What, I wonder, if there was an Indian man in the group who was with the women to protect them from being attacked by settlers as they exercised their rights to harvest turnips? (There’s more to say about reservations, reserved rights, and what Native people could do beyond reservation boundaries but I’m trying to stay on point.)

    To me, what we see in Prairie Lotus is that Native women/girls are ok, but the idea that Native people–men in particular–are dangerous, is left intact.

    Papa says they’re between Minnesota and the Black Hills. What do readers make of those two places? His reference to Minnesota is the same one that Mrs. Scott in LHOP referred to (the “Minnesota massacre”) and fans of LHOP will likely remember that scene in LHOP. But, what is Papa’s reference to the Black Hills about? What do readers make of it? We know Papa speaks of it as something not good. So they’re in the middle of danger.

    In the American imagination, there are good Indians and there are bad ones. In my experience, more Americans think we were savage, ignorant, primitive, uncivilized, and because of all of that, we were–and are–deemed as undeserving of our lands… of our homelands. Most of that imagery is left intact in Prairie Lotus.

    There are other problems for that’s what I am offering for now. This book isn’t meant for adult readers. It is resonating with adults who love Little House on the Prairie. In interviews, the author said she wanted to push against “the single story” of white pioneers. That needs doing, for sure. But underneath it all, the American story is about achieving success. Of making it good. Of providing for your family. Indians, well, we’re just trouble in the way of that success.

    I have no doubt the author of Prairie Lotus meant to push against the single story of Whiteness and the denigration and misrepresentations of Native people, but both are massive and for me, Prairie Lotus doesn’t work. I’ll be thinking more about how best to say all this for the post I eventually do at American Indians in Children’s Literature.

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