By Elizabeth Wroten
YA Review: Nona and Me by Clare Atikins
On 17, Mar 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
They are also best friends. It doesn’t matter that Rosie is white and Nona is Aboriginal: their family connections tie them together for life.
Born just five days apart in a remote corner of the Northern Territory, the girls are inseperable, until Nona moves away at the age of nine. By the time she returns, they’re in Year 10 and things have changed. Rosie has lost interest in the community, preferring to hang out in the nearby mining town, where she goes to school with the glamorous Selena, and Selena’s gorgeous older brother Nick.
When a political announcement highlights divisions between the Aboriginal community and the mining town, Rosie is put in a difficult position: will she be forced to choose between her first love and her oldest friend?
Nona & Me was absolutely perfect in terms of story, characters, and in capturing the struggle of trying to fit in and be yourself as a teen. I picked the book up with the lure of diversity and there certainly is diversity- Nona is Yolnu and Rosie has grown up on what is essentially a Yolnu reservation. I guess what made this the kind of book I wasn’t looking for was that it was told entirely from the perspective of the middle class white girl. I don’t think that detracts from the book per se, but know that you never hear Nona’s voice. Actually hearing Nona’s story would be both a book in it’s own right and incredibly interesting.
That aside, this book was brilliant. Rosie is in Year 10 and has established a friendship with Selena, a girl who brings a certain amount of social capital. Rosie also has a huge crush on Selena’s brother Nick. When Nick returns her affections the two begin dating and everything seems just about perfect. Until Nona shows back up in Rosie’s life. Nona is Rosie’s Yolnu sister and until they were 9 or so the two were inseparable. The narrative is primarily focused on the present, but short chapters that go back to Rosie and Nona’s childhood are interspersed and give a picture of how Rosie used to be and how Nona came to leave for several years.
At school, Rosie denies ever having been close with Nona to her new friends. When her mother gets wind of this she is incredibly upset with Rosie because the Yolnu community is a huge part of their lives and her parents have intentionally raised her in the community. Atkins so perfectly captures Rosie’s conflicting feelings over wanting to have friends in school and a cute boyfriend and accepting her Yolnu family which makes her decidedly uncool. It turns out Nick is incredibly racist, probably a learned behavior from his father, and Rosie slowly realizes that Selena is pretty shallow.
Rosie really struggles with squaring her the two pieces of her life and ultimately needs to make a choice. I think teens will really click with that struggle. Reflecting back on my own teen years I can’t say I would have made better choices than Rosie. Popularity and acceptance in those years is so powerful and it can be incredibly difficult to make the right choice when the right choice isn’t the popular one. It’s the kind of story where you just want to hug her, tell her her friends are terrible people, and that once high school is over they will seem so petty and insignificant.
When Rosie eventually accepts the Yolnu community back into her life, sadly after a tragedy, the transition back into both the community and it’s impact on her school life was pitch perfect. She spends several weeks at funeral ceremonies and she really uses the time to reflect on who she wants to be. When she returns to school this momentous event puts a lot into perspective for her. She also feels tension between the pull of her old life and the new meaning she has found in her community.
I especially liked the addition that Rosie is artistic. She aspires to be an artist when she is older. Her art class, although it only is mentioned a few times, is a touch point for her. The end of year project she begins working on helps her work through her conflicting emotions and I think that will resonate with a lot of teens too, artistic or not.
This book was very interesting to read after having read about Native Americans and their struggles with reservation life and the history of how they came to be on reservations. It sounds as though the Yolnu have gone through many of the same struggles (both historically and in the present), but the system is different too and may allow for . Certainly the stereotypes and blatant racism towards them are not unique to Native Americans.
Reading some of these amazing Australian authors (I’m thinking back to The Midnight Dress) I desperately want to visit Australia! It sounds like such an incredible place.