A determined Native girl fights back against a repressive system in this non-magical fantasy book.
R is for Rebel by J. Anderson Coats. Simon & Schuster, 2018.
Malley was named for the martyred Melian. Nearly all children of native Milean blood in the country formerly called Milea, now claimed by the Wealdan Empire, are given similar names of bravely defiant ancestors. Malley had been hidden by her parents and educated in a secret hedge school by an itinerant teacher, who taught everything by memorization and by song.
But her parents were caught and sent overseas, and now Malley, too, is caught and sent to one of the residential schools started by the Wealdans and run by cruel nuns, meant to turn the girls into quiet, submissive factory workers. They give Malley a new name, cut her hair, worn in traditional braid patterns meant to identify the wearer to the ancestor they’re named for, and put her in a plain white dress instead of colorful tunic and trousers she’s used to wearing. She’s forced to compete for tiny bits of food so foreign to Milean diet that she knows she’ll get sick from eating it.
Malley goes in resisting openly, just wanting to become “songworthy” and make a name for herself among the famous rebels of Milean. But she quickly learns that not everyone is so ready to stick up for themselves, as punishments are collective, harsh and sometimes permanent. Will Malley find anyone to resist with her? And will she survive her attempts?
This tale aligns very closely to the true stories of the Indian residential schools in the U.S. and Canada, meant to eradicate Native culture, but in a clearly invented world, with parts of the culture that do align with Native Americans in our world and parts that don’t. I always like to go see what Debbie Reese at American Indians in Children’s Literature thinks about any books covering Native content.
She hasn’t read it, as it happens, and was nervous about the description. Debbie (at least in my experience) prefers books about real Native culture by Natives, which is not this book, but the description also uses the word “merry” – also not a word I’d use to describe the book. It’s true that Malley was rarely truly hopeless, but that felt to me more like her own strength of character and stubborn beliefs, as the situation that was very grim indeed, and stayed so through the end. Despite this, the story and characters have stuck with me. This is one for young revolutionaries.
This book has been nominated for the Cybils award. This review reflects my opinion, not that of the Cybils committee.