Here are two stories of girls growing up in the Dakotas – one modern and one in the past.
Apple in the Middle by Dawn Quigley. NDSU, 2018. 9781946163073. Read from library copy.
Dawn Quigley would have been one of our keynote speakers at KidLitCon, and I am finally reviewing her book that I read in the midst of planning for it.
Apple is a lonely rich girl with designer clothes but no friends who tries to stay out of the sun to keep her skin pale so that she doesn’t stick out so much at her mostly white school. She dislikes her stepbrother and is afraid to go to cemeteries, blaming herself for her mother’s death at her birth. And she talks way too much, in the way of a kid who hasn’t been listened to enough. (I found this immensely appealing, probably because it reminded me of myself at that age.)
Then, her father and stepmother decide to take a vacation on their own and send Apple to stay with her maternal grandparents at the Turtle Mountain reservation (Ojibwe, of which the author is an enrolled member) in North Dakota for the summer. There she stops wearing her designer clothes and dresses in her mother’s old jeans and t-shirts instead, the better to explore everything. She makes friends – friends! – with the neighbors around her grandparent’s trailer, including a sweet five-year-old, Nezzie. But she also meets and instantly dislikes a man, Karl, who still resents Apple’s mother choosing Apple’s father, a white man, over Karl. His older teen son Rafe carries on the grudge as well.
I really loved Apple and her journey to get to know her family and valuing relationships over things, as well as that there are both good and bad people everywhere. But – spoiler alert – there is a child death here. I always hate, and usually do not read, books in which children are killed, hurt, or kidnapped to motivate the other characters. If a child dies in a scene that other friends find moving, I usually get angry at the author, and this is what happened here. I felt that Apple could still have made a full emotional journey without killing off a kid, and further felt that the villains in the killing came out of nowhere in a book that otherwise had a tightly defined cast. So, feelings! (Also complicated by my feelings of friendship and respect for the author, with whom I have exchanged lots of emails at this point, and whom I very much hope to meet someday!) If you are not going to find the story ruined by such an incident, and most other reviewers do not seem bothered by it, this is a much-needed story of a contemporary Native middle schooler. I look forward to reading more from Dr. Quigley.
Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park. Clarion Books/HMH, 2020. ISBN 978-1328781505. Read from purchased copy.
After her mother died from lung damage sustained in the attacks on Chinatown, Hanna and her Papa decided to leave San Francisco and start a new life in the territories. So far, every town they’ve tried has been too unfriendly to a white man with a half-Chinese daughter. Now it’s 1880, and they have their hopes pinned on opening a dress goods shop in the frontier town of LaForge, in the Dakota territories. 14-year-old Hanna’s hope is that Papa will let her sew dresses for sale, using the skills that she learned from her mother. And in every town, she hopes that there will be a school so that she can fulfill Mama’s dream for her to graduate from high school.
The town is modeled on DeSmet, from the later Little House on the Prairie books, but Hanna’s friendly encounter with Indian women and girls gathering food in the first few pages lets us know that this book is facing some of the problematic elements of that series head-on. And though they are determined to make LaForge their home, it’s an uphill battle – no one else in town wants their children going to school with a “dirty Chinaman”, and Papa isn’t willing to stand up for Hanna. But slowly, Hanna wins friends for herself in the schoolteacher and Bess, a girl her own age at school. Then, a disturbing incident with drunken men threatens to undo everything Hanna has been working for.
This is filled with details of sewing and Hanna’s love of fashion, as well as scraps of poetry and memories of her mother, who felt that Hanna being “halfhalf” made her double happiness. Both my parents read and enjoyed this, though my father felt that irritable, unsympathetic Papa was too flat and didn’t believe that he would really have done so little to help Hanna, especially given that he clearly loved and missed Mama. Though I have to agree that he didn’t have much of a character arc, I’ll hope for more books about Hanna in LaForge in which his character has some room to grow. Meantime, I’ll be recommending this lots, especially to kids looking for historical fiction and, along with The Birchbark House, to families wondering what to read after (or instead of) the Little House books.