Wednesday, November 9, 2011

My Name Is Not Easy, by Debbie Dahl Edwardson, a 2011 National Book Award nominee, is a powerful novel about love and identity  and what it feels like to long for both. This is an absolutely beautiful book set in the early 1960's about several teens, Native American and Eskimo, separated from family, stripped of their language and customs as they attend the Sacred Heart Catholic School, far from home. I found the setting, the cold, the ice, and the tundra, fascinating. I wondered what slices of frozen fish and seal oil taste like and felt I almost did.

For this post, I want to focus on a small scene in Edwardson's novel, a girl named Donna's "I feel pretty" moment of happiness and hope. It stands out in sharp contrast to the disappointment that follows. Like Natalie Wood's character in "West Side Story," Donna is having her hair done, her appearance transformed with the help of her girlfriends in anticipation of a dance. We know beforehand that Donna is a guarded girl, an orphan raised by nuns, emotionally vulnerable.

Edwardson writes

"The girl in the mirror is and isn't Donna. She isn't the shy Donna, the timid Donna, the afraid-of-everything Donna. The girl in the mirror is a brave new Donna, a Donna people will have to pay attention to, a Donna who expects attention. . . 

'What are you going to wear to the dance, Donna?'" Chickie asks.

Donna imagines herself half naked, not needing clothes, warming herself like a mink in the spring sun . . . it doesn't matter one bit what the new Donna wears, not one bit. 

'You can borrow my pink sweater,' Rose says.

'Perfect,' Evelyn says, stepping back to eye the image in the mirror like an artist trying to get perspective. Donna smiles.

The new girl, the one in the mirror, smiles back. She is ready."

But ready for what? Of course: the fall the reader has been prepared for.

Great writers like Edwardson know that if a character is about to suffer a disappointment, as Donna is,  the reader will feel and understand her disappointment only if there is something at stake.

So what is at stake? This scene I've quoted sets it up, shows us through image and language:  What is at stake are Donna's emerging trust that she is lovable and her belief that there is good in the world. When Amiq, the boy she longs for decides to drink and then, inebriated, forces himself upon her, in a way that has "nothing to do with her, nothing at all," the night is ruined. I felt her disappointment, and I am sure  teen readers will.

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