I have chosen to Review My Name Is Not Easy as part of the celebration of Native American Heritage during the month of November.
Title: My Name is Not Easy
Author: Debby Dahl Edwardson
Publisher: Marshall Cavendish, 2011
Themes: Alaska, Alaska Natives, Indians, Whites, Catholic boarding schools, survival, being an outsider, forbidden language
Genre: Historical fiction (1960-1964)
Awards: National Book Award Finalist
LUKE When I go off to Sacred Heart School, they’re gonna call me Luke because Iñupiaq name is too hard. Nobody has to tell me this. I already know. I already know because when teachers try and say our real names, the sounds always get caught in their throats, sometimes, like crackers. That’s how it was in kindergarten, and in first, second, and third grade, and that’s going to be how it is in boarding school too. Teachers only know how to say easy names, like my brother Bunna’s.
My name is not easy.
Luke knows his I’nupiaq name is full of sounds white people can’t say. He knows he’ll have to leave it behind when he and his brothers are sent to boarding school hundreds of miles from their Arctic village. At Sacred Heart School things are different. Instead of family, there are students – Eskimo, Indian, White – who line up on different sides of the cafeteria like there’s some kind of war going on. And instead of comforting words like tutu and maktak, there’s English. Speaking I’nupiaq – or any native language – is forbidden. And Father Mullen, whose fury is like a force of nature, is ready to slap down those who disobey. Luke struggles to survive at Sacred Heart. But he’s not the only one. There’s smart-aleck Amiq, a daring leader – if he doesn’t self destruct; Chickie, blond and freckled, a different kind of outsider; and small quiet Junior, noticing everything and writing it all down. Each has their own story to tell. But once their separate stories come together, things at Sacred Heart School – and in the wider world – will never be the same. (Goodreads)
Why I like this book:
While the multiple points of view and occasional third person omniscience gave a somewhat disjointed read and I would have preferred the author stay in the POVs of the two Iñupiaq brothers, Luke and Bunna, I also felt it gave an accurate sense of the complete sense of disjointedness a young child would feel being unrooted from family and culture and especially when forced to suppress one’s own language. From reading the opinions of others who have lived in Alaska, I understand the language used emulates well those from this region.
There are numerous heartbreaking moments in the story, from Luke and Bunna’s young six-year-old brother being take from them to Bunna’s refusal to trust Luke’s premonition about not returning home for Christmas and his consequent tragic death in an airplane, to the government and religious suppression they endure. The author spares the reader no raw emotions, and the group of disparate kids’ growth into their own little family in order to survive is believable and moving. I knew some of this history from my nonfiction reading but the reminder that it is so recent and the intimate portrayal of these personal narratives made for a powerful read. There aren’t many great middle grade reads about Alaskan Indians and this is a terrific, haunting and credible addition to our diversity shelves.
I also just want to give a shout out to the great title!
- Classroom use for students of native and non-native backgrounds to teach about the true history and experience of native peoples. Understanding the true history of many native people could lead into discussions and greater empathy for the modern culture of native people today and some of their challenges: alcoholism, drug abuse, single parent households, poverty, PTSD and so on.
- Also, the conflict between Inuit and Native Americans is less known and this can lead into discussions on racial conflicts and prejudice very well.
- The suppression of language by oppressors is another fantastic topic this book offers. These schools operated in Ireland, Wales and Scotland too, ensuring that Celtic children lost their language and thus their history.
- Discussion on the importance if names.