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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1042

Author: Debby Dahl Edwardson (b. 1954)

First published: 2011

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Historical fiction

Time of plot: 1960–65

Locale: Somewhere between Fairbanks and Anchorage, Alaska

Principal characters

Luke Aaluk, a twelve-year-old Iñupiaq boy

Bunna Aaluk, his younger brother

Amiq , leader of the Eskimo...

(The entire section contains 1042 words.)

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Author: Debby Dahl Edwardson (b. 1954)

First published: 2011

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Historical fiction

Time of plot: 1960–65

Locale: Somewhere between Fairbanks and Anchorage, Alaska

Principal characters

Luke Aaluk, a twelve-year-old Iñupiaq boy

Bunna Aaluk, his younger brother

Amiq, leader of the Eskimo students

Sonny, leader of the Indian students

Chickie, a freckled, white girl

Donna, an orphan

Father Flanagan, a kindly priest and teacher

Father Mullen, a strict priest and teacher, a boxer

The Story

Debby Dahl Edwardson's My Name is Not Easy was a 2011 National Book Award finalist for young people's literature. This book is inspired by events that affected Alaska Native groups in the early 1960s.

Luke, Bunna, and Isaac Aaluk are Iñupiaq children from the Arctic Circle. At the beginning of the novel, the three brothers are sent to Sacred Heart School, a private Catholic institution located in Alaska. Twelve-year-old Luke, following his mother's instructions, is determined to look after his younger brothers. As soon as they arrive at the school, however, the head priest realizes that Isaac is too young to attend and, with no warning or parental permission, the younger boy is taken away. Luke and Bunna are left in a harsh environment—where they are not allowed to use their language, and where the food and religion are unfamiliar to them.

At Sacred Heart School, the students initially segregate themselves by ethnicity. Eskimos (Iñupiaq and Yu'pik peoples), Indians (other Alaska Natives), and white students have their own tables. Luke and Bunna befriend Amiq, the leader of the Eskimo students and, although he helps them navigate through the school, Amiq also bullies them as well as everyone else around him. As the years pass, Sonny, the leader of the Indian students, becomes a friend. Likewise, Chickie, a freckled, white girl, and Donna, an orphan, become important to both Luke and Bunna. Although Luke is the main narrator, the story is also told by Amiq, Sonny, Chickie, and Donna—who reveal their hardships and struggles.

Sacred Heart School, located in an unpopulated area between Anchorage and Fairbanks, Alaska, is a small boarding school run by two priests and two nuns. Father Mullen is particularly strict, and he is not afraid of physically punishing those who disobey him. Furthermore, the school is poorly funded and, because of this, the children work as volunteers to earn some money. Luke and Bunna, for instance, hunt and at one point they have to skin and butcher a moose calf that was hit on the road. Likewise, several children help rebuild donated furniture, and all of them write letters to earn a new bus through Betty Crocker box tops.

Throughout the novel, which spans five years, Luke's life and the lives of the other students change. Although at the beginning they all seem incapable of putting their differences aside, they eventually learn to live together and even come to rely on each other to make it through tough events. Bunna, for instance, is killed in a tragic plane crash—an event that leaves Luke devastated. Furthermore, Luke and other children become test subjects in a military experiment. In the end, Luke is able to go home and more fully appreciate his Iñupiaq identity.

Critical Evaluation

My Name Is Not Easy explores one important theme: identity. Luke struggles with this issue when he is forced to change his name. He does this because his Iñupiaq name is too difficult to pronounce. Luke thinks early in the novel, "He doesn't know about my name, my Iñupiaq name. My real name is not Luke and it's not easy, not at all." Furthermore, Luke and Bunna are forced to adjust to an unfamiliar environment, where they are expected to give up their ethnic identity, and as Luke repeats numerous times throughout the story, "it's not easy." When the brothers try to run away, Father Flanagan attempts to help them fit in and tells them that Sacred Heart School needs helpers. Luke's response reflects his desire to hold onto his origins as he thinks, "Listen, we're not even Catholic."

Another aspect of identity that the novel explores is the conflict between the Indian and Eskimo children. Initially, the children segregate themselves into these two groups—with Sonny leading the Indian children and Amiq leading the Eskimos. As someone who is neither Indian nor Eskimo, Chickie sees things more objectively and thinks, "This world doesn't have too many Eskimos. It has too many sides and too many closed doors and too many people who don't understand." Although the school leadership helps bridge the gap between these two groups, their expectation for harmony beyond the school is naïve.

Furthermore, related to the idea of identity is family. Luke and Bunna never lose sight of their family background. Luke's sense of responsibility for his brothers carries throughout the novel, which ultimately leads to a climactic point when he sends out a newspaper plea to find out Isaac's location. Additionally, most of the children in the novel share the loss of a family member. Sonny and the Aaluk boys have lost their fathers, and Chickie and Amiq have lost their mothers. The harsh realities of life in Alaska leave these children in the arms of those who claim they want to help.

Finally, My Name Is Not Easy reveals a sense of Alaskan history. In addition to delving into compulsory boarding school attendance by Alaska Natives in the 1960s, Edwardson also exposes readers to environmental issues of the day, such as Project Chariot—where the US government planned to use atomic bombs to construct an artificial harbor in northern Alaska—and military experimentation on people who lived in the Arctic Circle. The earthquake that takes place in the novel is also based in historical fact.

Further Reading

  • "My Writing." Debby Dahl Edwardson, www.debbydahledwardson.com/works.htm. Accessed 23 Feb. 2017.
  • Edwardson, Debby Dahl. "My Name Is Not Easy." Interview by Eisa Nefertari Ulen. National Book Foundation, www.nationalbook.org/nba2011_ypl_edwardson_interv.html. Accessed 6 Mar. 2017.
  • Edwardson, Debby Dahl. "Reading under the Midnight Sun: Implication of Worldview." The Horn Book Magazine, May/June 2009, pp. 261–66. Literary Reference Center, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lfh&AN=37925712&site=lrc-live. Accessed 23 Feb. 2017.
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