Alma’s father is the proud principal of Stover, a school for Indian children to cure them from their savagery and integrate them into the white man’s society. From a young age, Alma grows up as the only white student at Stover, doing her best to palliate the stern indoctrination of the teachers and eventually earning the grudging acceptance of the Indians. She receives the name Azaadiins (“little aspen tree”), assuming that they call her this because of her pale skin, and participates with the students in their secret midnight dances as they desperately cling to their old ways of life.
Alma’s best friend Asku (renamed Harry Muskrat by the school) has been sent from the reservation to the school by his own father, who believes that in order to succeed in life, the Indians must learn to fit in to the white man’s world. And succeed Asku does, achieving so well in his studies that he is accepted to Brown when he graduates. Tumultuous events follow Asku’s departure from Stover as the massacre at Wounded Knee causes white folk to narrow their eyes at the Indians–perhaps their savagery cannot be amended and they should be exterminated instead? Alma’s own heart is caught up in the midst of the struggle, and she ends up banished from Stover, shut out by the world she never fully understood and bereft of her Indian friends.
In the twin story strand woven throughout the novel, we meet Alma years later, married to lawyer Steward Mitchell and receiving the alarming news that her friend Asku whom she has not seen for fifteen years is to be tried for murder. Instead of embarking on the glorious career that Alma’s father had imagined for him, Asku had returned to the reservation–too Indian to be accepted by the white men, and too white to be accepted by his own people. Alma convinces her husband to travel to the reservation with her and assist in proving Asku’s innocence, but along the way, the secrets that she has been hiding in her past must surface, and she must decide whether a true friend honors the wishes of another or tries to “save” them despite their own desires.
The treatment of Native Americans by the U.S. government is one of the more shameful episodes in our history. Amanda Skenandore explores this subject tenderly, using a narrator whose loyalties are pulled by both worlds, a narrator whose poignant self-discovery saves a difficult subject from becoming distressingly didactic. The book is slow-paced but marches inexorably towards the ending we know must come. This is my favorite book of 2018 so far, and I highly recommend it–as long as you have a tissue box handy.
Disclaimer: I received a review copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. All opinions expressed in this review are my own.
“The aspen is a strong tree. A resilient tree. The first to grow back after fire has scarred the earth. For this reason, I named you Azaadiins.”