Off the Shelf: Moving memoir describes boy's life on Navajo Reservation

Book Review: "Navajos Wear Nikes: A Reservation Life" by Jim Kristofic (University of New Mexico Press)

"Navajos Wear Nikes: A Reservation Life," by Jim Kristofic, is one of the most remarkable and moving memoirs I've read in a long time. When he was 7 years old, Jim's mom took a job at a reservation hospital and moved Jim and his brother from Pittsburgh to Ganado, on the Navajo Nation. The first summer there before he starts school was a good one. Jim meets Ferlin Shondee, also 7, whose mother works with his, and Jim and his brother spend an idyllic summer playing in the wild with their new friend. All that ends when school begins.

School is an entirely different world, where he is pointed at and laughed at. From the first day, he learns he is a bilagaanna bilasaana, a white apple.

"These kids were not like Ferlin Shondee," he tells us. "These were Indians, a dark-haired tribe in jeans and Nikes ... they were savages that scalped with flint-knives, burned houses, buried cowboys up to the neck ..." And so on.

When Spike Hair rubs sand in his face, Jim fights back, ending his first day in second grade with a bloodied face and torn shirt.

The first part of the book is about all the ways he had to adapt to bridge the cultural gap between his Navajo classmates and his "white apple self," and to build genuine relationships in this new and very different place. He learns to talk the way they talk to become one of them: "The" became "da." "Da sheep corral, da microwave." His insistence on sticking up for himself is important too, though, as is his willingness to complete daring rituals that his classmates also take part in to become the real "tough noodles" that they and he need to be to survive in that place.

But the most moving and memorable parts of the book tell of the other things he learns along the way from living there, ways of thinking and seeing that are truly gifts, which even now in his adult life in Pennsylvania continue to sustain him. Among many other things harder to express, he learned "to work hard, laugh harder, seek beautiful harmony, and love the land."

- Reviewed by Susan Lang, Peregrine Book Company event coordinator