This National Book Award finalist is a story that swells inside you as you read, filling you up with its significance, the skillful way it unfolds, and the beauty of the writing. It’s the story of three brothers in Alaska in the early 1960s who must leave their family to attend a Christian boarding school. The oldest brother has to use a name other than his own because his Eskimo name is too difficult for a non-Eskimo to pronounce:
“When I go off to Sacred Heart School, they’re gonna call me Luke because my Inupiaq 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 . . . 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.”
When the brothers arrive at Sacred Heart School the youngest, Isaac, is too young to attend and is adopted out to a family in Texas without his own family’s knowledge. Within the school there is hostility between Indian and Eskimo students, and corporal punishment is administered by a priest. In this painful environment the story is built on the wisdom and strength of its young characters and how they grow.
The story is about the devastation that occurs when one culture dominates another. It’s also about the good and bad side of lightning-fast progress. And it’s about families, the larger human family, and the way many small voices can join in the midst of staggering hardship and injustice to form one true and powerful voice.
The layers of the story echo and build to a meaningful crescendo in the final three sections titled: Our Story, Civil Disobedience, and Good Friday. The Epilogue eases readers into a knowing through metaphor. Just gorgeous.
—Kari Baumbach, children’s literature enthusiast
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