In Alaska, 1970, being a teenager here isn’t like being a teenager anywhere else. This deeply moving and authentic debut is for fans of Rainbow Rowell, Louise Erdrich, Sherman Alexie, and Benjamin Alire Saenz. Intertwining stories of love, tragedy, wild luck, and salvation on the edge of America’s Last Frontier introduce a writer of rare talent.
Ruth has a secret that she can’t hide forever. Dora wonders if she can ever truly escape where she comes from, even when good luck strikes. Alyce is trying to reconcile her desire to dance, with the life she’s always known on her family’s fishing boat. Hank and his brothers decide it’s safer to run away than to stay home—until one of them ends up in terrible danger.
Four very different lives are about to become entangled. This unforgettable book is about people who try to save each other—and how sometimes, when they least expect it, they succeed.
The story is told in alternating chapters, by Ruth, Dora, Alyce, and Hank. This review is primarily about Dora.
It starts out with Ruth. Her little sister is named Lily. They live with their grandmother. As the story begins, Ruth and her friend Selma, and Lily and her friend Bunny (Lily and Bunny are 11 years old) are about to sit down to eat together. Bunny gets to talking about fish camp. Lily asks Gran why they don't have a fish camp, and gran says "because we aren't native."
To that, Bunny says (on page 17 of the ARC):
"I'm not native, I'm Athabascan."Ruth and Selma laugh at her. Lily (Ruth's little sister) responds:
"What's so funny? She is Athabascan," says Lily. "Natives are the people like Dora's mom, the ones who hang out all day at the bar--they're too drunk to even bother fishing."Remember--Lily is eleven years old, but she apparently holds some rather stereotypical ideas about Native people. Maybe because she's eleven, we're meant to excuse her remark.
Later on that page we learn a little more:
Fish camps are pretty much handed down from family to family, but maybe Gran shouldn't have lumped all Alaska Natives together. It didn't seem to make Bunny very happy. Especially because Bunny and Dumpling actually have the nicest parents in Birch Park.Are there tensions in Alaska between different Alaska Native groups that would cause Bunny to be upset? Are they specific to alcoholism? Are we to understand that "natives" in Alaska are more likely to be alcoholic than Athabascans? A few pages later, we learn from Dora that most people in Fairbanks "lump all native people together" and that she (Dora) is Eskimo or Inupiat, while Dumpling is Athabascan, or Indian (p. 27-28).
As the synopsis indicates, Dora is one of the main characters in the story. Her escape is from her own home. Her dad, we read, drinks, too. But there's more: her dad sexually abuses her, and her mother knows about it. Near the end of the story, he beats up her mother and threatens to shoot Dora. By then, Dora has been living next door with Bunny and Dumpling's family for awhile.
When Dora wins some money, her mother pesters her for it so she can buy more beer. When her dad gets out of jail for shooting up the bar, he wants her money, too.
There are characters in the story that might be Eskimo or Inupiat (not sure what Dora's preferred term is). George, the old guy who works at Goodwill, knew Dora's great grandparents, but I can't tell if he's Eskimo/Inupiat or not. Nick, the bartender with nice teeth might be, too. Dora's mom dated him for awhile. If these two men are Eskimo/Inupiat, that would be cool, because they're likeable. But--we don't know.
And then there's Dora's mom's friends, Paula and Annette. Paula has a beaded wallet, so maybe she's Eskimo/Inupiat. The three woman are loud and drink together, a lot. Paula seems nice enough but the vibe I get of them is not good. In that scene in which Dora's father threatens to shoot her, Paula and Annette came running out of the house, abandoning Dora's mom.
The contrast between the Bunny and Dumpling's Athabascan family and Dora's Eskimo or Inupiat family, is striking. In the Athabascan home, Dora feels safe and cared for. Dumpling's family may be shown that way so that we'd have more than one image of Native peoples, but I wish that we were given more information about Dora's parents so that we might understand them as more than the stereotypical drunken and violent Indians. Why do they throw pictures across the room, cracking the glass and putting them back on the wall, with that cracked glass? What is the backstory on them? Without it, I think this story confirms troubling stereotypes. I'm also unsettled by the sexual abuse. Sexual abuse of Native women is rampant, and while there's no doubt that incest is part of that, I wish that wasn't part of Dora's story.
I'd also like to know more about Indigenous peoples of Alaska. Hitchcock gestures to complexities in terms used but I'm reading and re-reading those passages trying to make sense of it. Due out in 2016 from Random House, I'm marking this as not recommended.