Young adult books about coming of age as Native Americans

I have a goal, I’m going to catch up on unpublished pieces by year’s end…in view of that, here’s a piece published in the Chapel Hill Herald, September 2014

For years I’ve sought out Native American books, mostly because they are some of the least-published children’s books of diversity. I’ve seen these books develop, and recently listened to two incredible coming-of-age stories by people from within the culture.

Years ago I interviewed Native American writer Michael Dorris, who told me he wrote for children because when he’d grown up, the only Indians he saw pictured in books were stereotypical. In his Morning Girl (Hyperion, 1999), his heroine, a 1492 Taino girl, worries more about coming of age and the feelings in her family than the arrival of a strange boat that appears only in the final pages the book.

In 2007, Sherman Alexie published his YA book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian(book from Little Brown; audio performed by Alexie, 5CDs, Recorded Books) and blew away readers of all ages with his tragi-comic story of Arnold Spirit, who leaps from a poor Spokane Indian Reservation to a rich white school, suddenly becoming an outsider in both worlds.

The book won six starred reviews and the award for the 2007 YA National Book Award. In his acceptance speech, he acknowledges Ezra Jack Keats, calling his “Snowy Day” “the first book I loved” because the brown characters pictured in these books were the first he’d seen who resembled him.

Recently well-known adult author, Eric Gansworth, from the Onondaga Nation, penned his first young adult novel, with If I Ever Get Out of Here (book from Arthur Levine Books, ages 13 and up). He reads the audio (Listening Library, 10 hours, 23 minutes). His hero, Lewis Blake, like Gansworth, has been raised on a Tuscarora reservation in the 1970s. His intelligence distinguishes him in his public school, and entering seventh grade, he finds he’s, once again, the only Indian among his seventh-grade “smart kids” homeroom.

He’s grown to expect isolation and invisibility so is surprised when he’s greeted by George, an Air Force kid newly arrived from Guam, who’s excited about meeting “a real live Indian.” “As opposed to a dead one,” Lewis responds sarcastically.
Despite this awkward beginning, they discover they share a passion for music and the Beatles. George’s family is inclusive and his father, “a huge Beatles fan,” shares the boys’ enthusiasm and encourages Lewis musically.

Lewis avoids returning this hospitality, even though George says his father grew up on a reservation, because he doesn’t want his friend to see his “crumbling house,” meet his mother who has grown up under the “specter of boarding schools … a 75-year-old ghost,” and his supportive uncle who is still recovering from being drafted to Vietnam.

The two friends surmount some prejudices and the strain of George’s first relationship, but these mount. Lewis is passed over for an elite music chorus and finds himself the primary target of an ugly bully who operates openly, seemingly with the school’s protection. Lewis protests and is warned by the secretary to back off from his protests.

Gradually, their friendship triumphs, surviving the differences of their backgrounds, poverty, prejudices outside and within their individual cultures. Gansworth exposes some ugly truths and harsh realities, but tempers the discomfort they provide them with ironic tones, and develops his characters so well that their authenticity deepens the story. His reading adds to the reality of the tale. His tones are rhythmic, sing subtly, increasing in tone when Lewis is on the reservation, particularly when he voices conversation with Lewis’ Uncle.

I recently re-listened to Native American writer Louise Erdrich’s The Round House (HarperAudio, 10 CDs, 12.5 hours). The story is seen through the perspective of Joe, a 13-year-old growing up in the late 1980s in a small North Dakota Ojibwe community. Joe is the son of older loving parents (characters who also appeared in Erdrich’s earlier novel, “The Plague of Doves”) who have preserved his innocence as he chums around bike riding, camping or stopping by a relatives’ for fry bread and stories.

Joe grows up quickly the summer that begins with his mother’s brutal rape, only the first experience that shatters his innocence and ushers him into a world where his solid mother goes catatonic, his fair-minded judge father is helpless to bring justice, and laws favor a white sociopath because “being Indian is a tangle of red tape.” Through Joe’s innocent eyes, we witness him pushed into adulthood, taking steps neither he, nor listeners, could have imagined when the story began.

Erdrich makes this difficult story bearable and, in fact, gripping, because she stays firmly and genuinely in Joe’s unequal coming-of-age view. She balances his harshness with strong imagery and welcomes readers and listeners into a rez life where spirituality and bawdy humor co-exist happily.

This authenticity will speak to young adults as well as adults and its genuiness is well-express by Native American reader Gary Farmer whose speech patterns convince as his intonations mingle flat tones with sing-song rhythms.

Read more at Susie Wilde’s website,

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