THE WASHINGTON POST – Taste, touch, smell, sound, sight – Linda Sue Park tries to use all her senses when she does research.
For her new novel, Prairie Lotus, that meant preparing and eating a wild root vegetable called a prairie turnip.
Like her main character, Hanna, Park had no idea what to expect.
Hanna learns how to harvest and cook this unusual food from a friendly Native American woman. Park relied on the Lakota historian Donovin Sprague.
“It’s kind of a cross between a potato and a turnip,” said Park, describing the taste recently by phone to KidsPost. “Good in soup!”
Park’s research took her deep into the Dakota territory of four of the Little House books in the series by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
To write them, Wilder drew heavily on her childhood in the late 1800s, as her family moved West. Most were published in the 1930s.
“I loved those books as a child,” said Park, who grew up near Chicago. “I used to lie in bed at night and imagine I was Laura’s best friend.”
As an adult, though, Park wanted to rethink her youthful imaginings. When she was a kid, there were few novels with Asian American characters from any era.
Because people from Asia, especially China, were living in the West during the time of the Little House books, Park wanted readers to know about their experiences, too.
As the daughter of Korean immigrants and the author of many historical novels – including A Single Shard, winner of a Newbery Medal – Park likes thinking deeply about who tells the story.
What other people and groups may have been present at that time besides the larger group, the group whose story is usually told? What were their challenges and joys?
“I’ve been living with the idea behind Prairie Lotus for a long time,” Park said.
The book opens as 14-year-old Hanna and her father settle into their new town of LaForge, South Dakota. They plan to open a dry goods store and sell fabric to make clothes.
Hanna looks more like her Chinese mother, who died when Hanna was young, than her white father.
In the book, she has to deal with the curious stares and taunts of classmates whose parents want Hanna to drop out of school.
But Hanna is determined to continue, and she has a strong ally in her teacher and a new friend.
As a child, Park was disturbed by the depiction of Native Americans in the Little House books, and she wanted to correct what she perceives as racist stereotypes.
To create believable Native American characters, Park read widely, visited a native reservation and talked with tribal experts such as Sprague.
“There are only a few scenes with the native women,” Park said, “but I spent hours, days, weeks on the research. I wanted to get
it right.” Park also visited young Laura’s town of De Smet, South Dakota, the model for LaForge. And she researched the fabrics and fashions of the time.
Back then, people made their own clothes or hired a seamstress. Hanna is a talented seamstress who learned to sew from her mother. Park’s mother and grandmother passed the skill down to her.
Touching the fabric, choosing the thread, working with her hands – Park drew on her childhood memories of sewing to convey a sense of Hanna’s process and pride.
“Writing uses just your head,” said Park, with a laugh.
“But cooking and the needle arts can be so pleasurable because they use your head and your hands.”
And often, all five senses.