Review: My Name Is Not Easy

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.


Review: Memento Nora

Memento Nora by Angie Smibert. Marshall Cavendish. 2011. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Nora James, 15, was shopping with her mother when a nearby building exploded. She saw the body of a man, heard it hit the ground.

Luckily for Nora, she doesn’t have to worry about bad memories and nightmares. All she has to do is go to one of the many TFCs, a Therapeutic Forgetting Clinic. Take a number, wait your turn, tell the good doctor what you want to forget and take a pill. The memories are gone, and a person can continue his or her life, happily ever after.

While waiting at the clinic, Nora sees a teenage boy with a cast that has the word “memento” go in, come out — and as she watches, he spits out the pill and mouths the word “remember.”

Nora’s mother takes her to the TFC, and shows Nora just how easy it is by going through the process. The memory she shares is not of the explosion and dead body. It is far more personal, and far more world-shattering.  Nora decides she doesn’t want to forget, that it’s important to remember, and only pretends to take the pill.

Nora and Micah (the boy in the cast) meet and compare memories. Together, they decide to spread the word that memory matters. Neither quite realize the risks they are running, by questioning the established order.

The Good: Nora’s world is about forty-odd years in the future. It’s a world where corporations are everywhere and all powerful and the divisions between the haves and have-nots have increased. The wealthy live in gated communities with their own schools and malls; the poor, if they’re lucky, sleep in their cars. Random domestic terrorist acts by the Coalition are frequent. Her school is Homeland High #17, owned and run by Homeland Inc. It’s a dystopia for some, a utopia for others. And in case life gets a little too much, just take a pill.

Nora’s family is rich; her mother is a real estate attorney and her father owns Soft Target Security, whose clients include TFC. Not quite rich enough to live in a gated community with it’s years long waitlist, but much better off than Micah, who lives in a shed because his mother, a nurse, doesn’t have a good enough credit rating to rent an apartment. Some families chose not to live the “real American”  way as described by Nora’s father: “real Americans worked hard and bought stuff for their families so that other real Americans could do the same thing.” Some are like Micah and his mother, who cannot afford it. Others are like Winter Nomura and her grandfather, who live partly off the grid because Winter’s parents were arrested and held in Detention years ago.

Before Nora realizes the impact memory erasure has had on her life, on her family, she was the type of girl who loved nothing more than shopping and being “glossy.” Now she is aware, seeing and realizing things for the first time and she wants to do something. That something is making friends with Micah and Winter, the arty crowd. That something is creating a comic with Micah called Memento, about the memories they erased and why. Winter helps them make copies and distribute it in school. One of the memories Micah fought to keep is of a black van by an explosion. It turns out, the black van is important — and a threat. People will do almost anything to stop Nora, Micah, and Winter.

The story is told by Nora, Micah, and Winter in “Therapeutic Statements” at a TFC. From the start, the reader knows… whatever these three teens are telling us, they are soon going to be forced to forget.

Memento Nora is tightly written and stands alone. However, there are certain threads that remain open, mainly about Winter’s parents and Micah’s father. A second book set in this world, The Forgetting Curve, is due next spring. The short description at that link gives nothing away; it could be a straight sequel, or it could be something entirely different.

Like Paolo Bacigalupi’s science and world in Ship Breaker, Smibert’s science fiction draws on real science and real events as inspiration, which can lead to some interesting discussions about just how close we are to Nora’s world, both the world of TFC, the world of corporate control and consumer spending, the world of haves and have nots living two separate existences. Finally, Memento Nora is short, the way most young adult novels used to be. It’s 184 pages, with short chapters, a small trim size, and nice font. Those of you who have read one too many paranormals of a bazillion pages know what I mean about just how exciting it is to have a book of this length. The plotting, fast pace, and size, make it a terrific read for reluctant readers.

This was recommended by Diana Tixier Herald at her program at the recent NJLA conference. Off to find some of the other books she talked up!