I really enjoyed the music references in this book–and I got a kick out of the main character, Shoe, having an Uncle Albert, given all the Paul McCartney references. Plus, I’m reading it after having watched the movie Yesterday, so I’m getting a double dose of McCartney nostalgia. But the book really shone a light on the poverty of the reservations and the isolation that comes from being the only “x” kid in your class. It also does a great job of characterizing its upstate New York setting, making it a great Young Adult/Young Reader addition to our challenge.
I’m reading my way across the USA–5 or so books from each state, with an emphasis on those where the setting comes to life or where we learn something about the geography, history, and/or people of that state. Right now we are in New York–in this case, upstate near Buffalo (and Lockport, where Joyce Carol Oates grew up).
Speaking of Uncle Albert, some of the best moments of the book involve him, particularly those that relate to the intersection of cultures, like this one, where he’s explaining how he came to be named “Albert,” which George’s mutti says is a “nice German name”:
“Never thought about it. My dad thought we should all have regular names to make us fit in better. Guess he might have got inspired by all the gwuh-gwuh farmers around here.” I frowned at Albert. It took him only five sentences to hit reservation slang. He’d used the word we invented for the German farmers generations ago, inspired by the sound their funny shoes made.
But there’s a wonderful bit about how language connects the Native Americans from the reservation with those German immigrants–although in most of the book neither community is really aware of that connection. The school chorus that the boys are in sings a German-language Christmas carol for the residents of a nursing home.
When we broke into “O Tannenbaum,” wispy-haired heads nodded in approval from the folding chairs. George’s ma was smiling and nodding too. I thought back to my days speaking Tuscarora in elementary school, and the way some elders smiled as I’d told my basic story of catching a blue ball in snow. A lot of them, like my grandparents, had been Indian boarding school survivors, and as children, they’d endured beatings, isolation, and hunger as punishment for speaking the Native languages–the only languages they’d every known. I had just a sliver of understanding of what it meant to them to hear current children learning a Native language in school and being rewarded instead of punished.
We read about the boarding schools and discussed the loss of native languages way back when we read about the Navajo Code Talkers in our reading of New Mexico. At least one of those books talked about soldiers using Native American languages as informal codes during both world wars (in addition to the formal but top secret Code Talkers), but this is a reminder that the boarding schools were the result of a national policy of trying to forcibly integrate Native American children all across the country, essentially by beating their culture out of them.
In fact, the boarding school topic becomes one of the conflicts in the story, since George’s father grew up at a white-run school of some type on a Minnesota reservation. George doesn’t seem to know about the boarding schools, and his father hasn’t ever told him much about his childhood. Shoe likes the man, but worries about his possible connection to a system that harmed Shoe’s own grandparents as well as many Native Americans across the continent.
Gansworth’s character also experiences some of the complexities of blending in or “passing” in a way that reminds me of books I’ve read about light-skinned people of color. At the beginning of the book he cuts his braid off in an effort to fit in at school, but he also makes comments about certain other characters who don’t “look Indian,” and who get away with things that those who look more Native can’t.
It was hard to admit that my life was easier without the braid, even more now that my summer tan had faded. As much as I hated being invisible in class, I liked being invisible around town. I could be Italian, or even German, and so I didn’t get followed around anymore by store employees who just happened to suddenly be doing inventory in whatever aisle I was in. But every time I felt that liking-it feeling, guilt followed, like a garden slug working inside my belly, leaving its slime trail.
Even so, the clerk at the BX, on the base where George lives, gives the boys a hard time.
“You,” the man said, looking at me. “You got ID? I don’t recognize you.” “I’m not buying anything,” I said. “Don’t matter. This stuff is for military families only. Is any of this stuff for your buddy here?” he asked, turning to George. “No, sir,” George said immediately, the tone of his voice changing to a tight, serious sound I’d never heard from him before. “If you walk out of here and give something to him, you’re still violating policies.” He pointed to a sign above the door: MERCHANDISE PURCHASED EXPRESSLY FOR THE CONSUMPTION OF MILITARY PERSONNEL AND THEIR FAMILIES.
I found it somewhat unbelievable that George attributes the man’s attitude to having been slighted by George’s officer father rather than to his friend being a Native American, but perhaps it’s an attempt to save his friend’s feelings. In some ways that does seem like a 1970s way of dealing with the race issue. Or maybe it’s an upstate New York way of dealing with it–this comes up again in Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo. I sort of remember race being a taboo topic of discussion when I was growing up, so if you can’t discuss it, then when it happens you pretend it’s about something else to show that the person’s race doesn’t matter to you because you’re “color blind.” Of course this one is a little tricky, because technically the clerk is correct–the racism is in the fact that, as George points out, “People bring friends in from off base all the time and buy stuff,” and no one else has the policy pointed out so directly and unequivocally. And, of course, it’s also complicated by the fact that they’re both kids, who can’t question adult behavior without getting in trouble.
Gansworth includes some other upstate oddities, like Buffalo wings–which, in the 1970s hadn’t spread much beyond Buffalo (and certainly not to Germany or Guam where George’s family had been posted previously). And I love the bit about Pizza Hut (although, funnily enough, Pizza Hut is pretty much the only place in my Southern California neighborhood that I can get Buffalo wings!).
“Okay, pepperoni. Anything else?” “Wings?” I asked. “We’ll get to the music in a little while, but first we have to order the food.” “No, chicken wings, you know. Hot sauce, blue cheese. You order it from the pizza place.” Or at least everyone from around here did. “Is this like reservation food or something?” he asked, waiting for me to crack, laughing. “No, look, man, I’m totally serious. When you call, you ask–wait a minute, what pizza place do you go to?” “Pizza Hut, why?” “Are you kidding? You live in one of the most Italian towns outside of Europe and you get pizza from Pizza Hut?”
That’s totally upstate New York. The farmers may be German (my German relatives were), but the city dwellers–meaning Buffalo, Syracuse, Binghamton–are Italian (sometimes with Mob connections downstate, either supposed or real), with some Irish, Polish, and African-American mixed in. The popular pizza places are the local ones, owned by Italian families.
One of the most dramatic parts of the book is the 1977 blizzard, which is based on fact and highlights some of the ways in which the people from the reservations were treated differently–both differently than how those off the reservation were treated and differently to how the treaties say they’re supposed to be treated. But mostly it’s a perfect slice of upstate New York in winter.
By the third day, the winds died down to gusts of forty miles an hour instead of seventy. The ban on driving was still in effect, with wild fines for anyone caught on the road. We saw footage of other houses where the whole building was under drifts, just the peaks and tunnels for the doors visible. One picture showed a couple people standing on top of the snow and reaching up to touch a traffic light. That was how high and how firm the snow was. … [T]hey had to use front loaders and trenchers to break the snow. Regular plows were just stopped dead by the walls of snow they rammed into.
Occasionally on Facebook I see posts listing all of the unsafe things kids in the 1970s did, and Gansworth has his own lists, and indicates that the kids from the reservation were even more unsafe and unsupervised. He’s also guilty of idealizing some of that behavior–though his main character mostly observes or hears about the worst activities rather than participating.
As we shrieked in terror and excitement, barely missing the fence a few times, I thought of all the similar things I’d spent my life doing that wouldn’t have happened anywhere else. We’d strapped sleds to the backs of cars and flown through fields, dodging cricks and fences and trees, and sometimes simply wiping out. We’d packed cars so heavy, riding in open trunks and on roofs, that their chassis almost dragged. As we got older and stayed out later, we watched friends detonate homemade bombs from afar. They would work on them for weeks and announce the bomb party a few days in advance, and when the day came, we’d hang out, eat, drink, play ball, all being careful not to wander too close, in case the detonator wasn’t exactly the most sophisticated.
Now, I fully admit to not being one of the cool kids in those days (or even now), and there were certainly lots of stories of people getting injured setting off fireworks, but I don’t remember ever hearing about kids setting off homemade bombs! But in some ways it doesn’t surprise me at all–there are a couple of kids I could see having done that.
This sort of thing comes up in Richard Russo’s Bridge of Sighs as well, when Bobby Marconi breaks his wrist while the boys are “surfing” in the back of the milk delivery truck. Riding in the back of pickups is often one of the items listed in those posts, and Russo, at least, reminds us why this is no longer legal or as common as it was!
But one thing that’s missing from those posts is the fact that many of these activities had a lot to do with a lack of options. We didn’t have money to spend on a movie–or a way to get to the theater 20 miles down the road. If the only vehicle available is the farm truck, of course everyone’s going to pile into the back of it. Back then I had one friend who had a van–and it didn’t have seats in the back. We didn’t have big minivans and SUVs with large seating capacities.
At one point in the book there was an analogy about having a tooth pulled, and it struck me more as a reference to the poverty of the reservation rather than just an analogy, because what kid knows the details of what you go through after having a tooth pulled?
… like having a tooth pulled. When that happens, once the dentist yanks the tooth, there’s the bleeding hole you shove tea bags into, and you’re feverish for a few days, and then, after a while, you start sticking your tongue in there, feeling your body knit itself back together. The pain is like sparks to the touch, but there’s less and less as time goes on, and then one day, it’s just this gap, and the rest of your teeth close in on it, like they’ve been waiting for this all along.
The analogy obviously works to talk about how a pain can be initially sharp and constant, fading to hurting when poked, then disappearing altogether but leaving a gap that is never quite filled in. But it also references the effects of poverty–not being able to afford ongoing preventive dental care. In one of the other books I read recently for New York–I think it was The Subway Girls but I’m not sure–one of the characters comes to school in braces. The other characters take it in stride as normal, but I remember thinking that when I was in school in the 1970s (considerably after the time in that other book), braces were just becoming standard, and there was still a gap between the haves and have-nots. The farm kids and the poorer town kids didn’t get braces. It was a mark of having money if your family was able to afford braces. In the same way, a kid knowing these details about having a tooth pulled is a mark of poverty.
But as the book progresses, Shoe shares with George (and us) a few things about living on the reservation that he’s proud of, including at the border crossing when he goes to Toronto with George and his father.
“Don’t worry, sir. I do this all the time. We member nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy have a treaty with the US and Canadian governments. Canada isn’t a foreign country to us. It’s part of our territory, and so we can cross into it with just our ID cards.” I knew I sounded like I was reading a public service announcement on TV, because in some ways, that was what I was doing. Everyone from the reservation learns very young what we’re supposed to say at the bridges. I had begun calling myself a Native North American to US border guards at the age of six, and I got my ID card the summer I was ten. It listed my name, reservation address, and clan, and it had a small photo of me glued on and was signed by the Tuscarora Nation enrollment clerk. Some border guards used to pretend they didn’t know what we were talking about when we crossed over, but we’d been assured it was now part of their training. We enforced the treaty among the United States, Canada, and Haudenosaunee Confederacy formally once a year, in July. Most kids in my class thought of history and government as something boring and not connected to their lives, but I knew better.
It’s one of the few times we see Shoe feeling a little smug about being a Native American, especially when George and his father endure a minor grilling at the border, and he’s whisked straight through. I wondered about whether this really still works or works as smoothly in real life as it did in the book (especially since 9-11), and found this opinion piece written in 2015 by Sid Hill, then the leader of the Onondaga Nation of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. He describes two incidents where other countries (including the United States, Canada, Great Britain, and Peru) refused to recognize Confederacy passports, despite the treaties guaranteeing their sovereignty.
Eventually, we also get a few bits about Shoe’s Tuscarora culture, when he brings George and his father to the annual Picnic and Field Days on the reservation.
“This is corn soup and cornbread, similar tasting.” “But where’s the corn?” he asked, dipping a spoon into the bowl, moving its contents. “That’s the corn right there,” I said, pointing to the swelled, white, puffy kernels of Indian corn. “It’s prepared differently.” Usually, it was best for first-time tasters if you didn’t disclose that lye and woodstove ashes were used in the preparation, not to mention pig knuckles.
And, of course, Fireball, which is a real thing. (This article discusses the game and has a video link at the top of the page!)
“So this is like soccer, you said?” George asked. “If you take away the refs, shin guards, uniforms, and nets, yeah,” I said. “And, of course, light the ball and goalposts on fire.”
I kept thinking about Calvin & Hobbes playing Stickball… It’s a great description!
Overall, this was a great read for our challenge! It would be a really good book for a middle school classroom, with great opportunities for discussions about racism/discrimination, poverty–among all peoples–and the issues faced by Native Americans on and off reservations. Uncle Albert is a Vietnam veteran, as is George’s father, so there are segues into that conflict and veterans issues as well (although the war is peripheral).
If I Ever Get Out of Here by Eric Gansworth was a great addition to our reading challenge list for upstate New York!