Between Earth and Sky is a mesmerizing tale that examines prejudice and the harm it does: the horrors of overt discrimination, certainly, but also the far more insidious, but just as devastating, corruption of otherwise good people.
Despite having only a single POV character, it is able to give a surprisingly three-dimensional view of a specific and badly understudied episode of American history. By interweaving two separate periods within one woman's life, Skenandore offers a richly complex tale in which the relationship between cause and effect is often inverted, in which characters in later periods of the story offer tantalizing allusions to the ramifications of events in the earlier period which the reader is only just becoming aware of. The pacing of the two parallel strands is really brilliant, the complements between them so deftly handled that the reader doesn't even notice. And it makes for a wonderfully enjoyable mystery to unravel.
Both strands of the story initially unfold at a leisurely rate that invites readers to take their time getting to know the characters, soaking up the well-realized atmosphere, and admiring sentence after sentence of dazzlingly rich prose. As both facets of the story approach their climactic crises, the pace abruptly becomes far more urgent, even relentless. At both points, the book's short, easily digestible chapters are a strength, as they encourage the reader to continue without danger of growing fatigued.
Each character in the book is a fully formed, dynamic personality. The Native American children (many of whom appear as adults in the twentieth century portion of the story) are exploited and marginalized, but they are never helpless or lacking in agency. They also have just enough personal flaws to destroy the temptation to imagine them as people who properly belong to some sort of primitive, uncorrupted idyll. (Of course these realistic flaws stop well short of indulging the narrative of Native Americans as brute savages that justified the overt racism they had to endure.)
Among white characters, the moral ambiguity is intriguing, compelling. The man who runs Stover is no villain; his motives are uncomplicated and altruistic. The only criticism of his endeavor that he ever hears from other white characters is that he's wasting his time trying to educate people who are inherently his intellectual inferiors, and this hateful notion he categorically refuses to entertain. Of course he does much harm, but he retains the reader's sympathy until very late in the book, when events outpace his ability to control the racist course to which he has committed and end in devastating sorrow. His final scene is ambiguous, but I like to believe that he realized much too late the error of his ways, though if he did he understandably shied away from the heavy burden of his culpability.
Others involved in this experiment in assimilation are far more ignoble, but none really qualify as mustache-twirling villains. Indeed, on my second reading I was nearly overwhelmed by the impossibility of finding a really satisfactory solution to the problem of coexistence between two cultures that have been so irrevocably thrown together on such unequal terms. White characters in the nineteenth century portion of the story take refuge in this dilemma to support their unapologetic demands for assimilation. White characters whom we only see in the twentieth century strand of the story give this problem very little thought for the most part.
Native Americans, of course. are absolutely suffocated by it. Their bitterness is certainly justified, but their legitimate grievances at times lead to angry sentiments and wishes that are hardly any less distasteful than those of the smuggest white man congratulating himself on belonging to an alleged master race.
As for the novel's protagonist herself: She is always sympathetic, as we see the innocence of her motivations at every stage of her life. She strains this sympathy at times with a level of naivete and self-absorption that leaves her oblivious to the pain she causes others, even as she bears lifelong grudges against those who have hurt her just as unintentionally. Her inability to realize this in her youth is offset by a very late realization in maturity. We can credit this for the different tones to the two stories' endings. Both close on grim notes, but the earlier one is a raw and utterly devastating trauma, while the later offers a measure of peace and resolution.
However, make no mistake: There is no happy ending on offer, not to this story and not to its real-world inspirations. Notwithstanding a few tender moments, the emotions the book stirs up are not pleasant. Nor should they be. It is nevertheless a timely and necessary book. Published at the height of the worst administration in history, as the bad old days that gave us such horrors feel much less removed than they might have a few years earlier, it is essential that those who are privileged be reminded that injustice causes collateral damage. Those targeted for oppression are not the only ones who suffer from its corruption, whose lives can be ruined by the evil it unleashes. EVERYBODY is diminished by hatred. Better to learn this from history than from current events.
Hopefully, Between Earth and Sky will help to bring meaning to the sufferings of victims of real-world assimilation schools by ensuring that other people alive today are not similarly marginalized.