Tag Archives: religion

My Name is Not Easy

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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.

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The Serpent King

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“If you’re going to live, you might as well do painful, brave, and beautiful things.”

Three friends with three very different lives, bound together by love and respect for each other. One with a cursed name and history, one with a destructive present, and one with a glowing future.

Set in a small town outside Nashville named for a big wig in the KKK (“the second ‘r’ in Forrestville is for racist“), the story takes place over the friends’ senior year in high school as they each face a future apart from the others, and try to find their own way.

SO beautifully written.

The Serpent King is told from three POVs, and each voice is distinct in personality and tone. Even at the beginning of the book, even without the name at the head of each chapter, each narrator is unmistakeable.

Dillard Early Jr. lives in a world where he takes on the sins of his father. He lives in fear that his grandfather’s and father’s instability was passed down along with their name; his grandfather’s obsessive grief that led to his suicide and his father’s snakehandling, poison drinking, Pentecostal evangelicalism are two sides of the same coin. Dill fights back the darkness that shadows his everyday life. There is light, but he must choose to follow it. Will he be strong enough, with the burden he already carries, to make that decision?

Travis is an epic nerd. A giant of a boy who dresses all in black, carries a staff, wears a dragon necklace, and can quote pretty much all of the high fantasy series Bloodfall is going to be open for attack in any small town. But Travis, he of the horrible home life and bleak future, he of the gentle nature, knows who he is and takes joy in the moment. Travis has courage. And Travis broke my heart.

With doting, supportive parents, Lydia is privileged, determined, and self-assured. She hides the insecurities she does have with a smart mouth and an incredible work ethic that will see her set her corner of the world on fire. And she has love for and faith in her two best friends, no matter how the rest of the world sees them. She plots her escape from this small-town hell and fights for the same opportunity for her friends.

And Jeff Zentner is a musician who decided to write a book that reads like a love song to growing up.

This is a story about making choices. It is a story about climbing beyond despair and finding hope and peace.  It is a story about finding yourself.  It is a story about all kinds of faith and all kinds of courage.

This book punched me right in the heart, then turned around and filled it with hope. It is nothing short of spectacular.

The Serpent King was published March 8th, 2016 by Crown Books for Young Readers/Random House.