In 1960’s Alaska, many communities had no educational system and the children had to leave home to attend school. Sacred Heart was one such institution, populated by children who had no school in their remote northern homes.
On Luke’s first day at Sacred Heart, hundreds of miles from his home on the tundra in the Arctic, the 12-year-old learns that his Inupiaq language is forbidden. He has the marks from Father Mullen’s ruler across his hands to remind him. So he leaves his language and name behind, keeping only his 10-year-old brother Bunna with him as a reminder of home and a different life.
But while the cafeteria and classes start out divided, Luke and Bunna now stand beside Amiq, Sonny, Junior, Chickie and Donna, a new family made up of Indian, Eskimo, and white children. All are trying to figure out their own place not only at the school but also in the world that is changing at such a fast pace. And they find that they are stronger together.
This book has been sitting in my head for a couple of weeks now. It is challenging to find the words to review it (although you know I’m going to ramble on for quite awhile anyway) because it tells so many stories that it is difficult to know where to start.
This book is semi-biographical; author Debby Dahl Edwardson based it on her husband’s own real-life experiences growing up in the 60’s in northern Alaska, and going off to school hundreds of miles from home. He was Luke. And Bunna was his brother. Edwardson’s love of the land and people are shine through in her writing. She handles the subject of Native and Inuit children forced to leave their homes with sensitivity and honesty.
There are so many heartbreaking moments in the story, from the loss of little brother Issac through a forced adoption, to words of anger between brothers as they go their separate ways for the first time in their lives, to the moment when the children at the school finally recognize the injustice they are forced to live.
In equal measure are the uplifting moments. The development of a family at the school, discovering skills they didn’t know they possessed, the realization that each has the others’ backs, learning that they are capable of inciting change if they stand together.
The school is a microcosm of the world at large in the 60’s. There is change happening at such an incredible rate that no one seems able to keep up. Even the Fathers and Sisters that run the school seem lost and confused at times when faced with situations unfamiliar to them.
The novel tells so many stories at once, with so many different narrators, that I often lost track of who belonged to which one. It jumped around in time and tense, and I learned very quickly to note the date at each chapter heading, or a lot of the novel would not have made sense to me. It seems almost as if Edwardson had more stories than she had pages to fill, and had trouble choosing which were most important. But understandably so. Each character is distinct and comes to the school from a unique background, bringing a particular perspective to the story.
The disjointed feeling I had while reading, however, is an amazing way to illustrate even a faint echo of the feeling the children must have experienced when taken from their home and family and forced to turn their backs on their own language and culture. Where do I turn, who do I trust, why am I here? I do not think I am overstating it to call it a form of cultural genocide.
A lot of the experiences seemed disconnected, with no obvious outcome or result. And the final chapters, with the huge climax, seem to come out of left field.
All that said, the author’s notes at the end of the book tie it all together nicely. She gives historical facts and background to a lot of the events that are missing from the book, most likely because they would have been difficult to fit in from the childrens’ perspectives. They wouldn’t have had access to a lot of the information first hand.
It is a complex story about events in history that have been but a footnote in most texts. It should be read by everyone.
My Name is Not Easy was published October 1st, 2011 by Skyscape.