A Review of BETWEEN EARTH AND SKY by Amanda Skenandore

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Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the ARC.

I have read a lot of great books so far in 2018 (according to my Goodreads Reading Challenge I’m up to 36 books so far this year), and I can honestly say that BETWEEN EARTH AND SKY by Amanda Skenandore is the best one I’ve read so far. Skenandore’s debut novel, which will be published by Kensington on April 24, 2018, is a compelling and heartbreaking historical fiction set in the 1880s and early 1900s. The novel alternates between the main character’s past as the only white child attending the Stover Indian School in Wisconsin, and her present as the wife of a lawyer in Philadelphia in 1906.

In 1906, Alma Blanchard Stewart is living a quiet life with her husband in Philadelphia. One morning, while reading the newspaper, she learns that a Native American man was arrested in Wisconsin for killing one of the Indian agents on the reservation. Alma knows the man who was arrested – he was her childhood friend from the Stover Indian School. Convinced that her friend has been wrongly accused, she and her reluctant husband travel to Wisconsin with the intention to uncover the truth and help set Asku Muskrat free. Alma’s mission forces her to confront her past, and leads her to realize that the assimilation of Native American’s into white culture left the children of the Stover Indian School damaged and destroyed as they were never accepted by white people and they were estranged from their families on the reservations. Alma also learns that life on the reservation is not how she imagined it would be.

As a child, Alma’s father moved her and her mother from Philadelphia to La Crosse, Wisconsin in the early 1880s so that he could open up the Stover Indian School. At the time, people believed that the only way for the Native Americans to survive was to assimilate them into white culture. To do that, numerous Indian Schools were opened throughout the country to educate Native American children. The children were taken from their families on the reservations and then moved to the Indian Schools where they were forced to adapt to white society. Through Alma’s perspective, Skenandore shows what it was like for the Native American children. Upon arrival at the school, they are stripped of their native clothing and belongings. Their hair is shorn, they are given Christian names, and they are forbidden from speaking in their native languages. They are robbed of the identity. Alma’s father, as well as the other white people who work at the school, believe that what they are doing is the right thing. Even though Alma is a child, she questions what they are going to the native children. As Alma grows up alongside the native children, she learns their customs and their languages. But it is when she falls in love with one of the native boys and asks for permission to marry him that Alma realizes that she is the only one at the Stover Indian School who sees the Native Americans as her equals.

I was absolutely blown away by BETWEEN EARTH AND SKY. The story is very compelling, and I love how Alma’s present plays out alongside her past. As the only white child attending the Stover Indian School, Alma is stuck in a difficult situation. She is supposed to be an example for the native children, but she also wants to be their friend. She becomes caught up in the gray area – she is a white woman who knows about and embraces not only the Native American people but their culture as well.  The reader witnesses how Alma’s grows and reshapes her opinions as she learns more about the Native Americans and their plight. The story is also a heartbreaking one not only for Alma, but for all of the Native American children who were forced to attend the Stover Indian School. This is a novel about losing one’s native identity while trying to establish a place in a world that is not yet receptive to people who are not white.