This is a very hard story to review because it feels like it balances uneasily on a knife-edge of how the marginalized identities and their historic experiences are presented, and I don’t share either of the identities in question so I feel completely unqualified to judge whether the balance is successful.
Imala is a bi-racial (Black and Apache) student in a reservation school of the later 19th century who is trying to retain/learn her mother’s language and heritage in the face of the (historically accurate) efforts of the school to erase them. At a crucial confrontation with the school officials, her long-missing father appears leading a company of Buffalo Soldiers (Black regiment in the U.S. Cavalry) who need the assistance of an Apache translator. But both the soldiers and the reason for the translator are not at all what they seem.
Imala takes up the challenge but finds herself impossibly torn between being true to both her heritages, especially in the face of the possibility of losing her father all over again. Both the situation she is put in and the solution she finds are brutal and disturbing, even though she has agency over the choice.
The aspects that made me uneasy were how the set-up of the worldbuilding pitted the Black and Native American characters in hostile opposition to each other (whereas the evil White characters seemed more cardboard background) and the way Imala’s solution (and the background build-up to it) gives the appearance of privileging written language over speech in the context of preserving culture. It was a solution that made sense within the specific constraints set up in the story, but the historic background of attempts to preserve and retain Native American language communities undermine the story’s semi-hopeful outcome.
Several content warnings including racism, threat of rape, murder, and self-mutilation.