After Gabi's parents' divorce, she moves from California to Alaska with her dad. At first, it feels like banishment--until she meets Kai. He welcomes her into his life, sharing his family, his friends, and his warmth. But as winter approaches, Kai pulls away for seemingly no reason at all. He's quiet, withdrawn. Then one day, he disappears.
Kai's twin brother, Hunter, believes Kai is retracing their missing father's steps in the wilderness north of Anchorage. There's a blizzard on the way, and Kai is alone out there. Gabi's frustration over his emotional distance quickly turns to serious concern. This is the boy who saved her from the dark. She can't lose him to it.
So Gabi and Hunter agree to head out together on a wild journey north--a trip that will challenge them physically and emotionally, as they try to convince the boy they love to return home.
An Alaska Native reader who is Tlingit wrote to me to share concerns with the book. As regular readers of AICL may recall, I get email from people who prefer not to be identified. Some worry about backlash on them or their children. I respect their requests and am grateful for their careful readings of children's and young adult books.
The Tlingit reader's concerns are as follows:
Ambiguity of Native Characters
The two brothers in Whenever I'm With You are identified as having a Tlingit father and a Canadian mother, but no further information is provided. Are they enrolled? What part of Alaska is their father from? Were the two brothers raised outside their Tlingit community, and therefore, don't know enough about it to say more than they do? The idea of them being Tlingit is so lacking in detail to support it, that they could be Haida or a different Alaska Native tribe.
Because there is so little there, they could even be white and it would make no difference in the story. An example of them sounding white is in the way they speak about hunting. It doesn't sound the way Native Alaskans talk about hunting.
Degrading and Exotic Attitude towards Native Culture
The main character in the story is Latina. She's wealthy. Throughout, she is snobby and says negative and degrading things. One example is the passage about akutaq. Gabi and Hunter are at a restaurant. He digs in to his "dish of chunky fluff" (p. 80-81):
"What is that?" I ask.
He swallows. "Something you should try."
It must be made of dog lips or something. "Don't avoid the question."
"All right, I'll tell you what this is, but only after you take a bite. Are you willing to trust me that it won't kill you? That you might even like it?"
"What doesn't kill us makes us stronger, right?" At least, that's what Kelly Clarkson says. And if Hunter can eat it without gagging, it can't be that bad. I scoop out a spoonful and force it into my mouth. It's sweet. The chunky part is definitely some kind of berry. And the rest of it has a consistency similar to... "Mousse? I mean the dessert kind."
Headshake. "It's called akutaq. Do you like it?"
"I wouldn't say like. But I wouldn't say hate, either." I take one more bite and push the rest of it away. That's more than enough sugar for me. "Okay, I tried it. Now, what's in it?"
"Whipped fat and berries."
He can't be serious. "Like, animal fat?"
"Yeah. And berries."
"But it's fat."
"And berries," he repeats, smiling, clearly enjoying my display of culture shock.
"The berries are only there to make it taste good. Because it's fat." How is this a real thing people pay to eat? How does he not understand this is gross? "It's flavored. Fat."
"And it's good." He scrapes the last of his out of the dish. "Even you said it wasn't bad."
"That's not the point!"
Hunter's laugh comes out in spurts, like he's trying to hold it in and concentrate on more important bodily functions, like chewing and swallowing and not spewing his akutaq all over the table. Although it probably wouldn't look much different in vomit form.The Tlingit reader who wrote to me is offended by the comparison of akutaq to vomit and imagines other Alaska Native readers would be offended by it, too. The reader wonders if--by way of passages like that--readers are supposed to dislike Gabi and her negative impressions of Alaska Native land, people, and culture. The reader further says that these passages mark the book as one NOT meant for Alaska Native readers. Another example of the author not considering an Alaska Native reader is where Alaskan lands are described as a giant expanse of nothing.
While, in some places, Gabi seems to like some aspects of Alaska Native culture, it comes off in a fetishizing way, like when Gabi wonders if a bear is her "spirit animal" (p. 161):
Maybe it's my imagination, but I think the bear is looking right at me. Right into me. My heart thumps hard in my chest, my head, my ears, my throat; I feel it everywhere. But this thing I'm feeling isn't "scared." I don't know what it is. Exposed, maybe. Vulnerable. Or... trust? I'm putting my absolute trust in this creature not to charge and attack me. That has to be it--trust in its purest form--and the realization calms me. Tension falls away like I'm shedding a heavy coat. For the first time ever I let go of my control of a situation without feeling out of control.
Total serenity. From a bear.
It lazily turns its head back to the river, and soon we're riding off, every second giving us more and more distance from a possible threat. The moment is gone, but the impact of it stays with me all the way to Jack Randy's house.
Even if I had been paying attention to how we got here instead of contemplating whether the brown bear is my spirit animal, I couldn't find this place again if I had to.
I'll order the book, but I can say right now that my notes and analysis will likely look exactly like what you've read, above. (Note: the quotes above are from what I saw in the book using Amazon's "look inside" and the preview in Google Books.)
Who, I wonder, was the editor at Scholastic?! There are times when I think Scholastic is just a bit ahead of the field in terms of offering readers books with better representations of Native peoples, and then, they publish books like this one.