Barrow author had to keep award nomination a secret

Mike Dunham

The hardest part of being nominated for one of the top literary prizes in America? Not being able to tell anyone about it, said Debby Dahl Edwardson.

Edwardson of Barrow received a phone call Monday morning telling her that her young adult novel, "My Name Is Not Easy," was a finalist for the National Book Award.

"Then they proceeded to tell me not to tell anybody," she said. "I spent the next two days in this high state of nausea."

The announcement was made public Wednesday and word spread rapidly through Alaska's literary community -- and even more rapidly through the Inupiat town of Barrow, the northernmost settlement in the United States.

Edwardson will be flying to New York for a Nov. 16 banquet where the winners in four categories -- including Young People's Literature, the award for which she has been nominated -- will be announced. Before then, she'll be in Anchorage for a book signing event at 3 p.m. todayat the Anchorage Museum.

"My Name Is Not Easy," is the story of three Inupiaq children sent to a boarding school between 1960 and 1964. The story deals with their homesickness, hope, loss and coalescence as a family unit. Kirkus Reviews called the book, "painful, inspiring and affectionate."

Edwardson is not an Alaska Native. She's originally from the suburbs near Minneapolis. She came north after getting her degree in English at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. For a while she lived in the woods near Fairbanks and worked on the pipeline. Then, about 30 years ago, she went to Barrow.

"As odd as it sounds, I felt like I was home," she said. She married George Edwardson, a geologist who operated the Barrow gas field and has since had a role in tribal government on the North Slope.

"George is the storyteller," she joked. "I'm the scribe."

Among his stories were recollections of his school years. Like many Native teens in the days before each village got its own high school, he was sent to boarding schools. In his case, it was the Catholic school at Copper Center.

"The book is not about Copper Center," Debby Edwardson stressed. "It's fiction. A lot of it comes from his stories, but a lot is from other people too.

"The interesting thing to me about the boarding school experience is how it brought diverse tribes together and created a really strong network across the state," she said. "It's not some victim story; it's about how these kids come together and create family."

Edwardson has been publishing for most of the past decade. Her first book, "Whale Snow," was a picture book for elementary school children with illustrations by Annie Patterson. Her second, "Blessing's Bead," was for middle-school readers. "My Name Is Not Easy" is aimed at young adults but is substantial enough to interest older readers as well.

"I'm on a kind of trajectory here," she said. "I guess my next book will have to be an adult novel."

A "voracious reader" as a child, Edwardson found it hard to name a favorite writer. "But Sherman Alexie is one of my favorites these days," she said.

She said she has nonfiction and fiction projects in the works. And she's hoping to spend more time at a cabin on an island in Minnesota, similar to one where her family spent summers when she was a child. If, that is, she can cope with the change in scenery and society.

"After I moved to Barrow, the only culture shock went in the other direction. I didn't have that much money in those days. We didn't travel that much -- not with seven children. And when I did go down to the Lower 48, it was culture shock to me."

Her hobbies include skin sewing, making the fancy patterns that embellish parkas in Barrow, and bicycling. In season.

"Barrow is not the easiest place to bike," she said.

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Anchorage Daily News