Friday, 21 August 2015

My Name is Not Easy by Debby Dahl Edwardson

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What we thought:

“My name is hard, like ocean ice grinding at the shore or wind pounding the tundra or sun so bright ion the snow it hurts your eyes.”

It is the start of the school year and three brothers are about to travel hundreds of miles away from home to start a new life at a boarding school. But this is no Hogwarts. It’s a fictional example of a very real phenomenon – residential schools where Native Canadian and American children were sent to be ‘re-educated’ as model citizens.

It is only recently, through processes such as Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, that the harm caused by these policies has been acknowledged. But in My Name is Not Easy, Edwardson captures, at times with exquisite poetry, the experience of a handful of Alaskan IƱupiaq and Athabaskan children.

In the background of the story are real events of the early 1960s – including the forced adoption of native children, the testing of Inuit children with radioactive Iodine-131 to determine how they were able to adapt to living in Arctic conditions, and an abortive plan to create a new harbour in traditional hunting areas by detonating hundreds of nuclear bombs. But the power of the book lies in the way that Edwardson allows us to see the world through the eyes of those children.

We follow them over four years, from the first shock of their dislocation in a new environment:

“You’re supposed to be able to see things when you’re outside. You’re supposed to be able to look out across the tundra and see caribou ... the edge of the sun running around you like the rim of a bowl ... How can you even tell where you’re going in a place like this? How can you see the weather far enough to tell what’s coming?”

...through the dawning of complicated adolescent feelings:

“All I cared about was Bunna’s hand holding mine, our fingers lacing together, learning a new language all the way to Fairbanks. It was a language of love – holding on and letting go, holding on and letting go.”

...to an understanding of the power they can wield through working together and standing up for what is right.

“Legal name? He puts the pen right there on that line and signs his name, his real IƱupiaq name, the one he left behind... Aamaugak, Luke thinks. What’s so hard about that?”

Children at the residential school were taken from their families, stripped of their names, forbidden to speak their own languages and expected to leave their tradition cultures and ways of life behind. But as Edwardson acknowledges, the long years at school also forged alliances that lasted into adulthood, and have helped native peoples join forces and fight for their rights and land titles to be recognised.

Based on the experiences of the author’s husband and his brothers, this is a heart-breaking, beautiful and inspiring book.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: If I Ever Get Out of Here by Eric Gansworth, The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, Nation by Terry Pratchett

Avoid if you dislike: School stories, teenage heroes, having your preconception of native people challenged

Perfect accompaniment: Milk and cookies

Genre: Young Adult

Available from Amazon

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