My Name Is Not Easy by Debby Dahl Edwardson. Marshall Cavendish. 2011. Reviewed from copy from publisher.
The Plot: September, 1960, and brothers Luke, 12, Bunna, 10, and Isaac, 6, are on their way to the Sacred Heart School. Luke is not his real Inupiaq name, but that name has sounds that white people find hard to say so he goes by the easier name of Luke. My Name Is Not Easy is about Luke and his four years at Sacred Heart School, but it is not just his story. At that time, Alaska, instead of funding local schools, had boarding schools. While the Bureau of Indian Affairs ran many boarding schools, Sacred Heart is a Catholic school that includes children who are Eskimo, Indian, and white, boys and girls.
Other voices telling the story of this time and place include Chickie, a young white girl; Sonny, the informal leader of the Indian kids attending the school; Donna, an orphan; Amiq, the leader of the Eskimo kids.
The Good: As I was flipping through My Name Is Not Easy, to make sure I was including each person whose name appears before a section, I noticed that at one point the names disappear and it’s just the story. At the beginning, there are Eskimos, Indians, whites; each at their own tables, each believing the others are “other.” Luke and his brothers play cowboys and Indians, making baby brother Isaac be the Indian and believing that Catholics eat horse meat; Sonny recalls his mother’s warning that “you don’t quiet down, them Eskimos gonna catch you when you go outside to pee and chop your head right off.” Sonny recalls stories of his uncles killing trespassing Eskimos, and Luke remembers grandpa’s uncles killing all them Indians. The individual names before chapters disappear at the point in the book where the story becomes “our story” — when the teens are working together, seeing each other as friends, seeing themselves as one community.
Depressing things happen in My Name Is Not Easy. It’s not just having to live apart from parents, family, home. Luke and his brothers are forbidden to speak Inupiaq with each other; corporal punishment is not unusual; Isaac is taken from his brothers and, without his mother’s permission, adopted by a family in Texas; one of planes taking students home crashes; the government conducts testing on the Eskimo students. There is a difference between a depressing book and a book where sad things happen; this is not a depressing book. Yes, things are lost; Luke’s name is not easy, and neither is his time at the school. There is also love, friendship, kindness, and survival. Not just survival, but triumph.
As Edwardson explains in her Author’s Note, Sacred Heart School is based on Copper River School; many of the instances within the book are based on the true stories of the students who attended the school. Those students included her husband, who — like Luke — had a brother named Bunna and a younger brother who was adopted without permission. She lives in Barrow, Alaska; and here is one of the many articles about her and My Name Is Not Easy.