Sunday, July 15, 2007

Rain Is Not My Indian Name

Smith, Cynthia Leitich. (2001). Rain Is Not My Indian Name. New York: HarperCollins. ISBN 0688173977.

Cassidy Rain Berghoff is a teenaged girl living in tiny Hannesburg, Kansas where everyone knows everyone (and gossip is rampant). On New Year’s Eve, Rain’s birthday, her best friend (and secret crush), Galen, skips the dance to spend the evening with her. He tells her that her ex-second-best friend Queenie has dumped him for another guy—and that’s Queenie’s loss in Rain’s opinion. Rain and Galen sneak out and run around town, celebrating Rain’s birthday in their own tame, but clandestine way. Had Rain known that Galen would be killed by a runaway fire engine on his walk home, she would have insisted her grandfather drive him.

As if Galen’s death weren’t enough for Rain to deal with, she is torn between loyalty and obligation—her Aunt Georgia is having an Indian Summer Camp and Rain happens to be one of the small group of actual Indians in the town; and politics—Galen’s mother, Mrs. Owen is fighting for the position of mayor and has taken on the platform of fighting the Indian Camp as a frivolous use of city funds. Rain uses the excuse of being the town’s newspaper photographer—making it a conflict of interest for her to get involved.

On top of that, Rain’s brother Fynne and his new fiancĂ©e are secretly expecting a baby and are suddenly going through Rain’s dead mother’s things to make room.

In the end, Rain discovers that everything she thought to be true about her relationship with Galen (and his relationship with Queenie) is not at all what it seemed. She learns the cruel role race plays in these relationships. And in the end, she discovers how important it is to stand on the side of the Indians and give up the pressure to cater to Mrs. Owen. Finding a few other guys interested in her, she decides to let Galen go and to move on with her life.

Rain Is Not My Indian Name was such a problematic book for me. I liked the story. I liked the characters. I wasn’t necessarily bored with the plot, though it did seem like a long canoe ride down a tranquil river (and I don't mean that as a Native American reference!). But, in all honesty, I didn’t know what the point was exactly. There didn’t seem to be just one overarching message. Though being Indian was central to Rain’s family history and her place in the community, we didn’t really get to know the specifics about her particular tribe or how she felt about her Indian-ness other than how it related to the situation she was in (and even then, not exhaustively). I’m not sure whether I like that or not.

If the purpose was to spend 135 pages with a modern-day Indian girl who goes through normal, everyday situations and deals with normal, everyday problems, Smith pulled it off beautifully. I guess I have to say that I liked the fact of Rain’s Indian-ness not being what the book was “about” but that it was just another important part of her identity (like being a girl or like playing a sport or like being in theatre or something—just another part of what made Rain, Rain) was refreshing. Then again, I would have liked to have more details about her particular tribe. I guess that’s the result of having read a lot lately about how tribes can be so different from one another and being Native American is not just some umbrella term to mean you live in a teepee and wear buckskin.

On the one hand, how else are author’s going to present such interesting information in an accurate way without sounding didactic; but, on the other hand, if the book had been too much “about” her specific tribe, it WOULD have been didactic—and more books need to be written and published about Native-ness being a part of someone (just as much African-American or Latin-American literature is starting to do) so that the characteristic of Native-ness is just that… a NATIVE AMERICAN in a situation that any European American might find themselves in.

There were a couple of times in the book where Native-ness is mentioned by Rain (since the story is in the first person) that were very real and revealing to me:

At school, the subject of Native Americans pretty much comes up just around Turkey Day, like those cardboard cutouts of the Pilgrims and the pumpkins and the squash taped to the windows at McDonald’s. And the so-called Indians always look like bogeymen on the prairie, windblown cover boys selling paperback romances, or baby-faced refugees from the world of Precious Moments. I usually get through it by reading sci-fi fanzines behind my textbooks until we move onto Kwanza.

I love that quote. It’s so realistic and sounds just like something a teenager would say.

Rain is not my Indian name, not the way people think of Indian names. But I am Indian, and it is the name my parents gave me.

They met for the first time at Bierfest, during one doozy of a thunderstorm.

Mom used to call Dad her “rainy day love.”

Third grade. Mrs. Taylor’s class. The assignment was to dress up as an important person and give a report about that person to the class. Two sources. I got it in my head that I wanted to pick an Indian woman, and a trip to the library narrowed my choices to Sacajawea or Pocahontas.

I chose former Kansas senator Nancy Kassebaum instead.

The preschool song about counting “little Indians” popped into my head. I’ve always hated that song. “I know of nine Indians living in town,” I said.

“They prefer ‘Native Americans,’” the Flash told me.

I shoved the tune out of my head and shifted my camera strap.

He jotted down the number. “I’ll call Mrs. Wilhelm to double-check.”

“Excuse me?” I asked.

“Look, I know you’re from here,” the Flash said, “and everybody seems to know too much about each other in this creepy little town. But if Nat has to run a correction, she’ll shish kebab me. Your future sister-in-law is my only professional rec.”

Part of the deal with being a mixed-blood is that every now and then I feel like I have to announce it. “What are you?” people sometimes ask Fynn. It sounds like they want him to ID his entire species. Because my coloring is lighter, I usually get the next standard questions: “How much Indian are you?” (About forty-five pounds’ worth.) And “Are you legally (or a card-carrying) Indian?”…

I don’t mind as much when it’s Native people asking, probably because they show respect for the tribal affiliation, for my family. They never follow up with something like “You don’t seem Indian to me.”

I’ve never asked about the phrase “seem Indian,” but I figure it involves construction-paper feathers, a plastic pain pony and Malibu Pocahontas.

Such quotes are SO revealing! And they are so strategically placed in the text as musings that they never really seem to be “trying too hard” to teach the reader a lesson in “multiculturalism.” Brilliant!

Here are a few more:

This looks like what you want,” Dmitri said, jumping down from his doorway, holding a dreamcatcher. “Hang it above the bed.”

“It’s beautiful,” I said, “but dreamcatchers are kind of…trendy, don’t you think?”

“My mother made it,” he answered.

What with that foot crowding my mouth, I could hardly find a reply. Too bad Dmitri couldn’t sell me a word-catcher to let the good ones through and trap the rest.

I washed my hands and considered mentioning to Dmitri something we had in common, our Ojibway heritage. But I’d grown up so far away from it. I felt ashamed by how much I didn’t know.

Mom had always tried to tell Dad that Fynn and I needed to know about our entire family heritage. Dad would always reply that there was a lot he didn’t know himself, and it sure hadn’t hurt him. We were only St. Patty’s Day Irish and Bierfest German, but I was pretty sure they hadn’t been talking about those particular family lines.

Being a mixed-blood girl is no big deal. Really. It seems weird to have to say this, but after a lifetime of experience, I’m used to being me. Dealing with the rest of the world and its ideas, now that makes me a little crazy sometimes. But the Flash seemed like a pretty open-minded guy. And, sure, I would’ve been tempted to make fun of him anyway, but he was trying hard.

I thought for a moment. What was I supposed to say? It was just so obvious. “Do you have any idea,” I began, “how weird it is to be an Indian in Hannesburg, Kansas?”

The Flash didn’t look impressed. “Do you have any idea,” he answered, “how weird it is to be Jewish in Hannesburg, Kansas?”

“You’re Jewish?” I asked.

“My whole life.” He leaned back, threading his fingers behind his head.

The thought shot through my head like a bottle rocket. “But you don’t seem…” Oops, I thought, sinking slightly in the chair. I wished again for that word-catcher to le the good words through and trap the rest. Maybe I should be the person to invent it.

Anyway, just these few examples show that you can BE Indian and relate and identify with parts of it, not know a whole lot about it, feel guilty about that lack of connection and still be a “normal” person. If that was the point Smith was trying to make, then, I got it.

Reviews (via

Publishers Weekly:
Multiple plot lines and nonlinear storytelling may make it difficult to enter Smith's (Jingle Dancer) complex novel, but the warmth and texture of the writing eventually serve as ample reward for readers. The sensitive yet witty narrator, 14-year-old Cassidy Rain Berghoff, grows up in a small Kansas town as one of the few people with some Native American heritage. That experience alone might challenge Rain, but Smith creates a welter of conflicts. Rain's mother is dead (she was struck by lightning), and as the novel opens, her best friend is killed in a car accident just after he and Rain realize their friendship has grown into romance. Six months later, her older brother urges her to go to her great-aunt's Indian Camp. At first she shrugs it off, but later volunteers to photograph the camp for the town paper and begins to share her Aunt Georgia's commitment to it. When public funding for the camp becomes a contested issue in the city council, Rain decides to enroll. Some of Smith's devices such as opening each chapter with a snippet from Rain's journal add depth and clarify Rain's relationships for readers, although other elements (the detailing of song lyrics playing in the background, for instance) seem stilted. Even so, readers will feel the affection of Rain's loose-knit family and admire the way that they, like the author with the audience, allow Rain to draw her own conclusions about who she is and what her heritage means to her. Ages 10-14

School Library Journal:
Grade 5-9-Rain and Galen have been friends forever, but for Rain's 14th birthday, the thrill of finding that her burgeoning romantic feelings are being reciprocated puts the evening into a special-memory category. The next morning, she learns that Galen was killed in an accident on the way home. Plunged into despair, Rain refuses to attend the funeral and cuts herself off from her friends. Skipping to six months later, the main portion of the story takes place as she thinks about Galen's upcoming birthday and summer plans are complicated by the girl's Aunt Georgia's Indian Camp and political efforts to cut its funding. Rain participates in nothing and her family members, loving though they are, seem preoccupied with their own needs and concerns. Gradually, Rain's love of photography resurfaces and lands her an assignment with the local newspaper. She becomes involved in examining her own heritage, the stereotypical reactions to it, and her own small-town limitations. There is a surprising amount of humor in this tender novel. It is one of the best portrayals around of kids whose heritage is mixed but still very important in their lives. As feelings about the public funding of Indian Camp heat up, the emotions and values of the characters remain crystal clear and completely in focus. It's Rain's story and she cannot be reduced to simple labels. A wonderful novel of a present-day teen and her "patchwork tribe."-

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