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Friday, November 18, 2011
Slapin's review of Debby Dahl Edwardson's MY NAME IS NOT EASY
Below is Beverly Slapin's review of Debby Dahl Edwardson's My Name is Not Easy. It may not be reprinted elsewhere without her written permission. All rights reserved.
Edwardson, Debby Dahl, My Name Is not Easy. Marshall Cavendish, 2011; grades 7-up
The elders say the earth has turned over seven times, pole to pole,
north to south.
Freezing and thawing, freezing and thawing,
flipping over and tearing apart.
We were there.
We were always there.
They say no one survived the ice age but they’re wrong.
There were seven ice ages and we survived.
We survived them all….
The residential schools run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs or various church denominations were established in Alaska in the 1920s. Until 1976, when the Molly Hootch settlement required the State of Alaska to establish local schools all over the state—even in the remote “bush” regions—Alaskan Native children were sent to these residential schools that were hundreds or even thousands of miles away from their homes and families. Being away for years at a time resulted in cultural ties and intergenerational relationships broken, and languages and ways of seeing the world unlearned. The wounds were deep and the scars remain. For the most part, people still don’t talk about their residential school experiences.
The young man we come to know as “Luke” does not say his Iñupiaq name because it’s “not easy” for white people to pronounce. Along with other Iñupiaq, Yup’ik, Athabascan and some white young people, he and his brothers have been sent to “Sacred Heart,” a Catholic residential school for children who live in the Far North.
There, spanning the period from 1960-1964, the lives of the Iñupiaq, Yup’ik and Athabascan students are turned upside down as they struggle to survive the harsh climate of the residential school. A harsh climate that includes heartache and loneliness. That includes the isolation of being thrust into an unknown place, away from home and family and everything that has meaning. That includes being forbidden to speak their languages. That includes being severely punished for minor infractions. That includes a system of being abducted and given in adoption to white families. That includes being forced to ingest radioactive iodine in an “investigation” of why “Eskimos” do so well in cold weather.
Edwardson’s writing is crisp and clean, and middle readers will hear the voices of the students, who need not interrupt the narrative to explain their cultures. The way Luke, for instance, sees the world—his cultural logic—is the way it is. This world that is Sacred Heart, far from home, is an alien world. Luke says:
This place is not right. 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, flickering way off in the sunlight, geese flying low next to the horizon, the edge of the sky running around you like the rim of a bowl. Everything wide open and full of possibility. 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?
Back home there’s a breeze coming in off the ocean ice, and I wish I could feel its cool breath on my sweaty neck right now. Wish I was sitting in a boat with chunks of ocean ice just sort of hanging there in between the smooth water and the cloudless sky—drifting with their reflections white and ghost-like against the glassy water…. How can anybody breathe in a place where there is no wind, no open sky, no ocean, no family? Nothing worth counting?
While My Name Is not Easy is fiction, the stories and events are essentially true. Luke’s and his brothers’ experiences are based on those of Edwardson’s husband, George, and his brothers at Copper Valley, a residential school that enrolled some whites as well as Iñupiaq, Yup’ik and Athabascan students. The historic events—the military’s horrific experiments with iodine-131, the massive 9.2 Good Friday earthquake, the act of civil disobedience known as the “Barrow Duck-In,” and Project Chariot, the proposed detonation to demonstrate the “peaceful use of nuclear power”—all happened.
But something else happened in the Alaskan residential schools, something that the government and church authorities probably never intended: the way the students—“Eskimo” and “Indian”—came together, the way that family was created, the unexpected thing that changed the force of history in the state, that drove the land claims movement and other political changes that gave Alaska Natives political power. “Across the state,” Debby Edwardson told me, “there’s a generation of pretty powerful leaders. George, for instance, who was known as ‘Pea Soup,’ is now tribal president.”
The younger generation of Iñupiat, she said, “has grown up with the pain of loss of the language because their parents and grandparents were punished for using it.” As in the rest of the country and Canada, New Zealand and Australia, language revitalization efforts continue, and “we are working on a language immersion preschool program that will also create an indigenous teacher track for educational strategies specific to our communities. So, in a sense, we are actually decolonizing the language and trying to heal so much pain.”
My Name Is not Easy is really a political coming-of-age story; what starts out as Luke’s personal narrative ends as a community narrative. It’s only in the last pages that we’re told Luke’s Iñupiaq name. As Aamaugak reclaims his name, he, as the duck hunters of Barrow had, leads an act of civil disobedience that unites the students who, ultimately, come to realize that what brings them together is more powerful than what separates them.
The young students here are courageous. They’ve learned how to survive. “Yes, we learned,” Luke says. “We learned how not to talk in Iñupiaq and how to eat strange food and watch, helpless, while they took our brother away.” They’ve learned to withstand Father Mullen’s vicious beatings and “the words Father says that sting worse than the blows.” And they’ve learned, as Amiq and Sonny have, how to laugh softly, “when something bad happens and there’s nothing left to do but laugh.”
Here, Debby Dahl Edwardson relates the students’ stories with honesty and beauty—and without polemic, without hyperbole, without expository digressions, without the need that lesser writers seem to have to teach something. My Name Is not Easy is an antidote to Ann Rinaldi’s toxic My Heart Is on the Ground and all the other middle reader novels that romanticize “Eskimos” and “Indians,” and minimize the pain of the residential schools. Thank you, Debby.
We were always here,
hanging on where others couldn’t,
marking signs where others wouldn’t,
counting kin our own way. We
survived. The earth