Review of the Day: I Can Make This Promise by Christine Day
- I Can Make This Promise
- By Christine Day
- Harper (an imprint of Harper Collins)
- ISBN: 978-0-06-287199-2
- Ages 9-12
- On shelves October 1st
Middle grade literature can too often become heavily reliant on a number of well-worn tropes. For example, this year (2019) we’ve been seeing a slew of books where the mom is dead and the daughter has to essentially care for her grief-stricken father. But this literature isn’t just limited to dead moms. Grief is weighing down the protagonists of 2019 like a heavy blanket. So much so that members of a book committee I serve on have taken to saying, “If nobody’s grieving, then the book wasn’t published in 2019”. Into this wasteland comes I Can Make This Promise. In this book you will not find the main character mourning anyone. This is not to say there isn’t sadness and tragedy tucked into the folds of the plot, but the book doesn’t dwell. Instead, it’s got a kicky little storyline full of family secrets, lying parents, mean friends, and a mystery with an unexpected ending. I think I may have devoured it entirely in one sitting and, when I was done, I felt lighter inside. Set in contemporary Seattle with a Suquamish/Duwamish protagonist, Day (Upper Skagit) highlights a historical injustice by writing a book a kid might actually enjoy reading. No mean task.
Imagine you’re poking around your attic and you find a box. Inside there are photographs of a woman who could be your twin. She looks just like you, right down the gap between her teeth. Even stranger, this woman has your first name. “Edith”. But this can’t possibly be a relative. Your mom is Native American and was adopted as a baby. She has no clue who her family even is. Your dad is white, so this woman clearly isn’t from his side. So who is “Edith”? Why is her story in your attic? Why is her name your name? In I Can Make This Promise, a girl digs deep into her family history, finding truths that are painful and stories that are horrifying and yet must be told if any kind of healing can begin.
Is it weird that I enjoy books where parents keep secrets from their kids, and the kids know what those secrets are? That’s a pretty unique genre. It’s weird too because as a parent I should be entirely on the parents’ side. Solidarity, right? But if a writer is adept, I’m more than happy to sink into a child’s invocation of righteous indignation. In Day’s story, the secret that the parents hide from their girl is kept a secret for a long time partly because she refuses to ask them about it outright. Sometimes her reluctance can feel contrived. By necessity, her reasons for keeping silent must change as the book progresses, and in a less skillful authors’ hands it would take you out of the story entirely. Fortunately, when the truth comes it’s by Edie and on purpose. It’s not one of her friends. It’s not fate. It’s Edie who asks.
As I say, I revel in books where kids can take their parents to task. But I Can Make This Promise is a little different from those other books. There are usually only a couple reasons why parents would hide information from their kids in middle grade novels. Read enough of them and you get a bit jaded. So as much as I was enjoying Ms. Day’s book, I wasn’t expecting much of the big reveal at the end. Odds were that the mom would just relay some family history and you’d find out that her mother had died in childbirth or something and that’s why she was put up for adoption. When the explanation does come, Day has, until that moment, been parceling out her story with great care. She’s been drawing you into Edie’s grandmother’s life with letters and postcards from the get go. By the time you get the full explanation, you feel like you know her. And the back-story isn’t shocking at first. Then you learn about what happened when Edith accompanied her brother into Seattle. You don’t know why, but there’s this strange sense the whole time that something terrible is going to happen. And when the real truth comes out, it isn’t faked or padded or jollied along. It is quick and horrible, all the more so because it is real. I haven’t had a punch in the gut at the end of a middle grade novel, combined with American history I was never taught, like this pretty much ever.
Lots of children’s books work American history into their stories. A few from Indigenous writers will discuss Native American history too, but often they involve moments in history that could feel very long ago to the readership. But if you read Day’s Author’s Note at the end, you’ll see that this story involves elements that reference events from the 1950s, 2004, 1989, 2009, and, most importantly, The Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978. Some of this history is good, and a lot of it is awful. Because of this, Day’s book feels like a rarity. A contemporary story about a Suquamish/Duwamish girl discovering her own heritage? Why does this feel so astoundingly one-of-a-kind? How can we get more books like these on our shelves? The fact that it’s even been written is a good start. More please.
A truly enticing, beautifully written story that delivers a historical reveal at just the right time.
On shelves October 1st.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
Notes on the Title: Folks, I like this book, but it has been saddled with, what I like to call, the “When You Reach Me” Problem. Which is to say, I am incapable of remembering its name. This is because the name doesn’t really seem to have much to do with the book. It’s one of those dreamy idea names that look good after the words “Newbery Award Winner”. Honestly, I’ve taken to calling it “I Know This Much Is True” by accident on more than one occasion. To be frank, the name is forgettable, even if the book itself is not. Can we get a name do-over, by any chance?
Filed under: Best Books, Best Books of 2019, Reviews, Reviews 2019
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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