Author: Amanda Skenandore
Publisher: Kensington Books
First Published: 24 April 2018
Rating: 5 stars
“Pestilence? Alma didn’t know the meaning, but her mother spoke as if the words itself tasted foul. She grabbed the apron and collected the clothes, examining each garment for some sign of this awful pestilence.”
I will start by saying that I was given an ARC copy in exchange for an honest review. These opinions are my own. Thank you so much to Kensington Books and NetGalley!
On a quiet Philadelphia morning in 1906, a newspaper headline catapults Alma Mitchell back to her past. A federal agent is dead, and the murder suspect is Alma’s childhood friend, Harry Muskrat. Harry—or Asku, as Alma knew him—was the most promising student at the “savage-taming” boarding school run by her father, where Alma was the only white pupil. Created in the wake of the Indian Wars, the Stover School was intended to assimilate the children of neighbouring reservations. Instead, it robbed them of everything they’d known—language, customs, even their names—and left a heartbreaking legacy in its wake.
The bright, courageous boy Alma knew could never have murdered anyone. But she barely recognises the man Asku has become, cold and embittered at being an outcast in the white world and a ghost in his own. Her lawyer husband, Stewart, reluctantly agrees to help defend Asku for Alma’s sake. To do so, Alma must revisit the painful secrets she has kept hidden from everyone—especially her husband.
This is a stunning and harrowing book, which looks at America’s attempt to ‘civilise’ the Native Americans during the 1800s. Told through the eyes of a young white girl, Alma, who grew up saw no difference between the two races and believed they could be friends. She believed in the propaganda of the time that through this re-education Native America and White America could live together in harmony. This book tore me apart and one I won’t forget for a long time.
This story is way more complex than I originally thought it would be and it was a story I had trouble putting down. There were a quite a few days I went to work sleepy, as I’d spent most of the night reading.
Skenandore has this beautiful narration style. It’s told in two timelines. The first when Alma is a child growing up in the boarding school in the last 1800s. Where the second timeline is set in the early 1900s when Alma is a married woman who’d all but turned her back on her childhood until the newspaper heading grabs her attention.
The way Skenandore is able to show these two stages of Alma’s life without getting the reader confused takes some serious talent. Not once did I get confused between which Alma was telling the story. Each chapter is signposted but towards the end, I will admit, I skipped over them to find out what was happening. Each narrative has a distinct voice that is similar enough to feel like the same person, which left me in awe. I was able to fully sink into the world and get wrapped up Alma’s life barrelled towards the climax.
The mystery of the book lies in the event that causes Alma to change from a happy, optimistic child to the closed off adult who we see faking most of her everyday actions and words. You can feel the tension rising the closer you get to the end of the story. This tension is translated across to the young Alma sections through the foreshadowing of the early 1900s narrative line. This mystery kept me hooked the entire time and when it finally unfolded broke me into little pieces. At times this book was hard and almost confronting. There was no hiding from the pain and horror people can and will inflict on each other.
This world is totally engrossing. The clothes, actions and dialogue of the character feel as though they’ve been lifted from the history books. Skenandore has the way of adding in smell and textures that help to bring the late 1800s, early 1900s alive. I especially adored how she added in words and phrases from the Anishinaabemowin tribe. It added an extra depth to the characters and also gave me an insight into the Native American culture I’ve never had before. I also adore how Alma took the time to learn about her friends’ culture and was one of the few white characters that understood the slight differences in the tribes.
I cannot get enough of this world and these characters. Skenandore doesn’t hold back showing the ignorance of the 1800s White America and their frankly pigheaded belief that they were ‘saving’ the Native Americans by showing them a self declared ‘civilised’ life. This is an important story. We shouldn’t forget about the tragic and more horrible aspects of our history. Skenandore handled the topic beautifully and Alma was, for me, the perfect guide to being a white person I can never fully understand exactly what these tribes went through. I really adored this book and cannot recommend it highly enough. If you like this sounds interesting please grab a copy. More people need to read Between Earth and Sky and discover this gem!