Monday, November 29, 2010

Male Monday: I Am Nuchu

I Am Nuchu by Brenda Stanley 2010 (ARC)
Westside Books

Rating: 1.5/5

IQ "But most of them [traditions] are written by people other people; writers who are not us. If you don't live it and practice it, it's not the same and will be lost." Grandfather pg. 190

Cal Burton is half Nuchu (Ute is the name given the Nuchu by white people) but he's never cared to learn more about his heritage. He's forced to live in the throes of his culture when his parents divorce and he must go live with his mother on the Utah reservation where she grew up. Cal hates everything about Fort Duchesne Reservation, he wants to go back to Spokane, Washington where is a basketball star and has lots of friends. In Utah, there is blatant racism and the sheriff is the driving force behind much of the racism. Cal gradually starts to learn that the reason they moved back to the reservation is not as clear cut as it seemed and that the Burton family has LOTS of secrets.

Before I start this review, I just want to say that I am not Nuchu or Native American so I can't say for sure if any of this was offensive to the Nuchu people but as a non-Native reader, I found some of this to be offensive. (if it's not offensive to Native peoples, I will raise the rating). First of all, I was always under the impression that Native Americans did not like to be called Indians, they prefer to be called by their tribal name, in this case, Nuchu. However throughout the entire book, EVERYONE says Indian. I can understand why the racists say it and I even understand why Cal says it, he sees it as a derogatory name befitting a group of people he wants nothing to do with. however Doran, Cal's brother is supposed to be the sensitive one, but even he says "Aren't you curious about the Indians?" (pg. 9). This makes the Nuchu sound like some foreign species and granted, Cal does Doran "[t]his isn't the old West." (pg. 9) but both boys continue to refer to the Nuchu as "the Indians." Which led me to think they both hate being Nuchu and yet, the author seems to be trying to make the claim that Doran is proud of his heritage and so are the other Nuchu people that Cal meets. If they are so proud, why do they identify themselves as Indians, a term that the ignorant people of the town use? Another incredibly annoying issue was alcohol. Shortly after arriving on the reservation, Cal catches his mom drinking at 10 AM. We aren't told how many beers she had nor are we told if she has previous history of being an alcoholic. But all of a sudden Cal is raging about his 'alcoholic mother' who hangs out with her "drinking buddies" (pg. 48). True having a beer in the morning is troubling, but I'm not sure I would immediately jump to the conclusion that my mother is an alcoholic!

The writing style also grated on my nerves. It was ALL TELL, no show. "Robert's face turned to despair." (pg. 254), "Cal swung around surprised" (pg. 58), etc. These feelings/emotions could be conveyed through the words Cal/Robert/whoever used, I don't need to be told that Cal is surprised, I should be able to gather that from the context. Furthermore, I was so tired of everyone lying to Cal. It just didn't seem realistic. I understand lying at first to protect him, but after he finds out one of the truths, why not just tell him everything? I suppose this could also be seen as a strength of the novel because I was just as fed up as Cal over the lies. I did like that the author was discussing revenge versus justice, but the execution fell so flat, I didn't pay it much mind. I never got a grasp on the personalities of all the characters either. Cal meets Puck, Johnny and Fly, but I couldn't keep them straight because they all blended together. They appeared when they were needed to help out the plot, but that was it. I didn't get a feel for Rachel (Cal's sister either).

I Am Nuchu has potential due to its complex mystery surrounding the death of Cal's aunt as well as the reasons as to why Cal and his siblings had to move back to the reservation, but it never comes together. The writing is slow, heavy with unnecessary details and not allowing the dialogue of the characters to carry the story. The characters are one dimensional and the dialogue sounds unnatural at times. To top it all off, I wasn't a fan of "Indian" being thrown about so casually and I'm not sure I liked the messages about alcoholism being presented. I was hoping to walk away from this book with a stronger idea of Nuchu culture, but that is not the case.

Disclosure: Received for review from Westside Books. I'm sorry :(


  1. My impression is that how Native Americans feel about and use the term "Indian" varies a lot, but you'll find that some Native American authors, like Sherman Alexie (Spokane/Coeur d'Alene), use it a lot in fiction. Of course, I would be much more wary of a non-Native author making that choice, so it really depends on the context and why the author made that choice.

    There's an interesting interview with Stanley here:

  2. This sounds like one of those books that has an interesting premise but the writing is so boring and dull that it fails to keep your interest. The interview is interesting, but strange in someways.

  3. I haven't read the book but coming from a family where we are proud of our Native heritage though we try not to use the term "Indian", it does slip when we're explaining our heritage to people outside of the family. However, often I will correct somebody whom I already explained it to that we do prefer the name "Native American" or the name of our Tribe, in my family's case the Blackfoot, when addressed.

  4. I haven't read the book and don't intend to, not just because of your review but because of that interview from the first comment.

    "I knew that the people valued family and culture, but it was hard to see that when you are someone looking from the outside." And, "Also, many Native American people are quiet and reserved. It was difficult to get them to open up to me, but once they did it was such an enjoyable experience."

    Set off warning flags in my head.

  5. uh... really? how do books like this manage to get published again? just wondering... :(
    At least she took her time to sit down and write it so, kuddos for that.

  6. @Mel-You reminded me that one of the great 'tragedies' of my life is having only read one book by Sherman Alexie! (The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian). I agree, if the author was Native, it wouldn't have raised any flags with me, but she isn't and thus I'm troubled.

    The parts Handy highlighted were the exact same sore spots for me as well in the interview! Thanks for the link.

    @Najela-Handy's comments perfectly highlight why I didn't like the interview although I admit, I had some bias from already reading and reviewing the book. The premise was interesting. I'm not familar with many Native American tribes (Sioux, Cherokee and a few others) so I was looking forward to learning about Nuchu. Alas that was not thecase.

    @Handy-I don't think I would have read it if it wasn't sent to me for review. I've learned from Debbie Reese (American Indians in Children's Literature) that books from white authors aobut Native Americans should gie you pause. Honestly, I would have waited till Professor Reeese approved this one! (half in jest ;)

    You picked out the same comments I would have chosen. However I also wish the author had further expanded on the issues she brought up. No solutions are ever found nor does Cal talk to many other Nuchus so I had no idea what was being done to help address the issues of poverty, education and alcohol. The author had the right idea I suppose.

    @Akoss-I'm glad that publishing is opening up and I'm especially grateful for the smaller presses but there are some cons to it. Like I said to Handy, I certainly think the author's intentions were good and the fact that she sat down to write the book is good.

  7. Yeah, I don't want to discourage white writers from writing about people of colour (or even authors of colour from writing about cultures and people not their own*)... It's just frustrating when they don't get it right or approach it in a way that feels alienating or stereotypical, like they're writing about how they think we are like or should be like, instead of as we are. And on top of that, they get published over authors of colour or end up recognized/taught/valued as an authoritative voice.

    *I'm not saying POC get it right all the time either, but that possibly there's a little more empathy/understanding of what it's like to be the 'other' culture when you're part of it, even if it's not the same one. (er, did that make sense?)

  8. Mel mentioned Sherman Alexie; I read an essay of his (for school, but it was really good and I hope to read more by him) called The Unauthorized Autobiography of Me, which I believe is in his book One Stick Song (2000). In it he writes:

    '"Why do you insist on calling yourselves Indian?" asked a white woman in a nice hat. "It's so demeaning."

    "Listen," I said. "The word belongs to us now. We are Indians. That has nothing to do with Indians from India. We are not American Indians. We are Indians, pronounced In-din. It belongs to us. We own it and we're not going to give it back."

    So much has been taken from us that we hold on to the smallest things with all the strength we have left.'

  9. You should change the rating based on the Alexis quote alone. Alexis has been oft criticized for playing into stereotype. For example, many Native Spokane elder dislik "The Absolutely True Diary..." Also, Natives don't appreciate white people disclosing their sacred rituals, as is done wrongly in"Touching Spirit Bear." Finally, the many Natives I kno have no problem w/ whites using "Indian." Stanley knows this given where she lives. The book, ultimately, is about turning to Native waysrather than from them. It's about hope and restoration and forgiveness. How did you miss that?

  10. Trying to get through this book... Stereotypes everywhere, bad writing, one improbability after another. It screams outsider-author, and it is inconsistent in characterization, too.

    Regarding Native use of "Indian" --- yes, Ari, we do use it, but as you note, we prefer to use our specific tribal name.


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