Monday, November 28, 2016

Rain Is Not My Indian Name by Cynthia Leitich Smith

Cassidy Rain Berghoff and her best friend Galen Owen have promised each other to always celebrate their birthdays, both having been born on noteworthy days - Rain on New Year's Day and Galen on July 4th. Now that their friendship seems to be moving into the relationship realm, Rain had already decided that for her 14th birthday, it was time to kiss Galen, really kiss him, French kiss him. But it was a kiss destined never to happen. Galen was hit by a car and killed on New Year's Eve.

Rain is unable to bring herself to attend Galen's funeral, and in fact, holes up in the house for the next six months. By June, though, she is somewhat ready to emerge from hiding.  Her older brother has let her know that he would like her to participate in their Aunt Georgia's Indian Camp, a camp for Native American teens to explore their culture while living in a very white community. Rain isn't really interested in it, but finds a way to be there without participating. When she was young, her grandfather taught her all about photography. Rain has become a very talented photographer and is hired to take photos of Indian Camp for a news article in the local newspaper. The paper is run by Fynn's girl friend, Natalie, who has also been living in their home for a while.

Rain is a little confused when she first arrives at camp to find her former best friend, Queenie, there. When Rain learned that Queenie and Galen were romantically involved, their friendship began to change, and completely dissolved when Queenie hurt Galen. To make matters worse, Queenie had gone to Galen's funeral, something Rain couldn't do, and had even read a poem she had written. Now, no one understands why an African American girl is participating in Indian Camp until they learn that Queenie has recently discovered that she is part Native American, her great grandfather was Seminole.

Rain's intention is to keep a neutral distance from the camp and just take photographs, but when she learns that Mrs. Owen, Galen's mother, is challenging the town council for giving the camp some public funding, her attitude about and involvement in it can't help but change. Having been subjected to all kinds of stereotyping, anti-Indian prejudice and demeaning sentiments in and out of school her whole life, Mrs. Owen's challenge just becomes too much for Rain to ignore.

Rain is a teenager who has a lot to deal with - coming to terms with Galen's death, her brother's pending marriage and the baby he and Natalie are expecting, the possibility of rekindling her friendship with Queenie, and exploring her feelings about her own Native American heritage. Rain's mother, who was killed by a freak lighting strike a few years earlier, was Muscogee, Creek-Cherokee, and Scots-Irish, and had always referred to her family as her "patchwork tribe." Her dad, stationed overseas at a military base, is Irish, German and Ojibwe. The family lives in Hannesberg, Kansas, a mostly white community, which is one of the reasons Aunt Georgia felt Indian Camp was so important for the few Native teens who live there.

Rain Is Not My Indian Name is Cynthia Leitich Smith's debut novel and she written a main character who is sensitive, funny and for the most part very in touch with her own feelings about herself.  And even though it is narrated in the first person by Rain, the reader gets even more insight into her life through the short journal entries the begin each chapter.

Rain says she is basically OK with who she is: "Being a mixed blood girl is not big deal...Dealing with the rest of the world and its ideas, now that makes me a little crazy sometimes." And yet, she wants nothing to do with Indian Camp, and in school, around Thanksgiving when all the negative pop culture depictions of Indians come up "as bogeymen on the prairie, windblown cover boys selling paperback romances, or baby-faced refugees from the world of Precious Moments" (pg 13), she hides behind sci-fi fanzines rather than doing or saying anything, just as she hides behind her camera for Indian Camp or in the house for six months after Galen's death.

Rain Is Not My Indian Name is a coming of age novel about learning to (re)connect with the world in a new way and Indian Camp just may be the way for Rain to do that.

But it is also a much needed novel about what it feels like to live in a white community when you are culturally mixed, and part of that mix is Native American. And for readers who aren't Native American, like myself, reading this novel is an important eye-opening experience.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL


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