As I have mentioned in prior reviews, fiction allows writers to create stories that are based around certain facts, and they permit readers to take a look at how the people involved feel. Fiction also has the power to bring unknown events to a wider audience. In the case of My Name is Not Easy by Debby Dahl Edwardson, it showed the experiences of Alaskan students from the vast region known as the Bush. They had to travel hundreds and even thousands of miles to attend boarding schools for months or years at a time prior to the Molly Hootch settlement of 1976. That required the state of Alaska to fund schools no matter how small the settlement was. As one could imagine, those experiences were not very rosy. The book does a fair job at telling these stories.
My Name is Not Easy is about Aamaugak or “Luke” – an Inupiaq teenager – who is sent to Sacred Heart School – a boarding school hundreds of miles away with his brothers in the early 1960s. The school contains Eskimos (note: the characters in this novel refer to themselves as this), Indians, and white students, who are constantly segregated even in the cafeteria. They are also forced to speak English, and if they disobey, Father Mullen is ready to use his ruler. Luke struggles to survive, but he’s not the only one. There’s the smart aleck and daring leader Amiq, the blond and freckled Chickie, and the quiet and nerdy Junior. All of their stories come together at the school, and things will never be the same.
I really liked the story around Luke. He is the eldest of three, and like any other oldest sibling, he feels the need to look after his brothers. However, his youngest brother Isaac is too young to attend school, so he is essentially kidnapped and adopted by a family in Texas (to be fair, his family could have waited one year before sending Isaac to that school). Luke expresses guilt for not doing more. In addition, as the title implies, his Inupiaq name is not easy to pronounce, and he fears losing his identity. I even felt sad for him when he found out that his other brother Bunna died in a plane crash.
I also liked how subtle the injustices were. Granted, there were scenes, in which characters were smacked with a ruler, but I’m talking about ones that it takes them awhile to realize what had actually happened to them. For example, scientists come to the school to test how the Eskimos can withstand intense cold. One of the experiments that they did involved giving Inuit students a cupful of iodine-131 aka radioactive iodine. The Author’s Note, which provides a lot of context to the story, states that a lot of students ended up having cancer because of this.
The aspect that didn’t work as well as it should have was the fact that it had a lot of narrators. In fact, there are 5 narrators in total throughout the book. Even though these stories need to be told, I didn’t connect to them as much as I hoped because of the constant switching between characters, sometimes even in the same chapter. It didn’t help that Junior – a character emphasized in the summary – didn’t have much of a story until the third act. I feel that the story would have been more concise if Luke was the sole narrator or if him and Chickie (a stand-in for the author) were the main ones. I liked Chickie as a character – a white girl who could be tough and sassy, and she even falls in love with Bunna.
In addition, I felt that the finale – the earthquake and tsunami – was anticlimactic. I understand that this actually happened in 1964 (Luke’s final year at the school), yet how it was used in the story was underwhelming. It felt like Edwardson was grabbing straws for a climax, and then she did some research and was like, “I know! An earthquake and a tsunami occurred in 1964, so I’ll have the characters react to them.”
Overall, My Name is Not Easy by Debby Dahl Edwardson is an average young adult historical fiction novel. It’s clear that the author cares about these experiences. I only wish that there weren’t so many narrators and that the climax was more impactful. Despite my complaints, it did get me interested in learning more about the experiences of Alaskan students in boarding schools in the mid-twentieth century. So yes, I would recommend this to readers who like to read about social justice, PG-13 versions of The Nickel Boys, stories involving Inuits and Native Americans, and the 1960s.
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