When I go off to Sacred Heart School, they're gonna call me Luke because my Iñupiaq name is too hard. Nobody has to tell me this. I already know. I already know because when teachers try say our real names, the sounds always get caught in their throats, sometimes, like crackers. That's how it was in kindergarten and in first, second, and third grade, and that's how it's going to be at boarding school, too. Teachers only know how to say easy names, like my brother Bunna's.My name is not easy.My name is hard like ocean ice grinding at the shore or wind pounding the tundra or sun so bright on the snow, it burns your eyes. My name is all of us huddled up here together, waiting to hear the sound of that plane that's going to take us away, me and my brothers. Nobody saying nothing about it. Everybody doing the same things they always do. (p. 3)
My Name is Not Easy, Debby Dahl Edwardson's second novel, takes place in Alaska during a critical 1960-1964 immediately following statehood. She tells the stories of Inuit and Native American groups who were forced by Alaska's educational laws at the time to send their children from remote villages to boarding schools similar to the fictitious Sacred Heart School for their secondary education. It is a controversial time in Alaskan state history, where families were separated, native practices were restricted without consulting the tribal leaders, and where tests were performed on children without their consent. Edwardson's novel touches upon these elements as she delves into the lives of five teens (Luke, Amiq, Sonny, Chickie, and Donna) who are affected by these events.
Luke is the main voice of the five, as he opens and closes the novel. We see him stripped of his Inuit name (which we do not learn until late in the story), as he struggles to adapt to boarding school life. He is the conscience of My Name is Not Easy, as he is the witness and victim in many of the events that unfold. His counterpart is a fellow Inuit, Amiq, whose aloofness and occasional violent outbursts represent the frustration that builds from the perceived and real humiliations that the native peoples of Alaska experience. He is rough, tough, and yet surprising in his insights into what is transpiring. Sonny, the Indian (we are never given his tribe) nephew of a newspaper editor of a central Alaskan town, becomes the voice of the students, while Chickie and Donna represent the white children who also are students at Sacred Heart School. Although their voices are muted compared to the three boys, they serve as a mirror to the reactions that many young white Alaskans had when learning of the unequal treatment of the boys.
My Name is Not Easy is told in episodic fashion. We see through the five main PoVs the adolescents' divergent upbringings, their difficulty with trust and communication issues, as well as the callous cruelties inflicted on them by the parochial staff (or on rarer occasions, genuine love and concern). Edwardson bases so much of these events on actual occurrences that took place during this time period when her husband, an Inuit, and others she's known for over thirty years were students in similar schools. This sense of verisimilitude adds depth and power to this novel, making for several memorable moments that have their roots in actual events, such as the proposed nuclear bombing of an Inuit hunting ground in order to carve out a new harbor for ships or the administration to Inuit children without their consent a radioactive isotope of iodine in order to test for a possible reason why the Inuit could endure bitter cold better than other ethnic groups.
Edwardson does a masterful job of mixing the fictional characters with these dark historical truths. We feel for Luke when he learns that his youngest brother, whose anglicized name is Isaac, has been forcibly removed from his home and sent to Texas to be with an "adoptive family," without any of his extended family's consent. We come to understand Amiq's aloofness and occasional aggression and there is a moment late in the novel where the quiet Donna shares an intense bonding moment with one of the nuns at the school. Edwardson's portrayals feel so authentic that it is hard at times to separate a fictional character's PoV from the actual histories that underlay this novel.
There are very few weaknesses. Perhaps Edwardson could be charged with being too biased toward a particular group, as the priests, almost without exception, come across as being mean-spirited and hypocritical to the tenets of their profession. Yet even Father Mullen, perhaps the darkest and most mean-spirited character of the novel, is shown in a few rare occasions to have the saving graces of guilt and gruff embarrassment at a couple of key moments; unfortunately, much of this ambiguity is ruined toward the end of the novel when we read a small passage from his PoV. Edwardson also sticks so close to the underlaying events that at times it feels as though the children at Sacred Heart School are engaging in a Forrest Gump-like role of being a part of nearly every single momentous event during the 1960-1964 period. These are small deficiencies comparison to the vividly-told story that unfolds over 240 pages.
My Name is Not Easy is certainly deserving of consideration for the 2011 National Book Award for Young People's Literature. It is a story that easily could be used in the classroom to highlight not just the injustices inflicted upon native peoples by the US Government during the height of the Cold War, but also as a warming tale of how young people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds come to a greater understanding of one another. My Name is Not Easy's appeal goes far beyond middle school and high school classrooms, as its characters and their situations can easily be understood by people of all ages. Certainly one of the better contemporary/historical novels of this year.