In Hearts Unbroken, Cynthia Leitich Smith remedies several concerns among those who care about depictions of Native people in today’s fiction, particularly those writing for young adults. Criticisms have been leveled about non-Native writers who use stereotypes or blanket depictions as though there were no distinctives from nation to nation, about the lack of portrayal of modern Native young people, and about the relatively few Native writers with firsthand knowledge who are able to publish authentic writings about the specific nation from which they come.
Louise Wolfe, the Muskogee (Creek) protagonist in this novel, moves between her life as a high school senior in a school that is minimally diverse and the rich culture of her ancestry. In her place as a journalist on the school newspaper, she and the staff have a major story to cover in the conflict of a first-time inclusive approach of the school music director in casting The Wizard of Oz and the backlash from a group called Parents Against Revisionist Theater. Student writers are given autonomy by the journalism teacher whose motto is, “(1) Don’t bother me unless you’re on fire. (2) Don’t catch on fire.” Uncovering Frank Baum’s editorials describing whites as the masters of the American Continent and calling for the annihilation of the “few remaining Indians” puts a difficult decision on her younger brother Hughie who has been cast as the Tin Man.
The author’s comments give understanding to the reason the protagonist in this book seems so authentic. The novel begins when Louise ends her romance by email with the arrogant athlete she’s dating after he disrespects Native people. Her new relationship becomes endangered when she makes an insensitive remark herself. She based the novel on a remembered foot-in-the-mouth comment she made to a boy she dated in high school. Pointing out that she is not Louise and her former boyfriend is not Joey, she nevertheless uses that triggering event for a realistic novel. She includes words, traditions, and celebrations from her own Muscogee heritage as well as the angst common to teenagers in a way that feels natural for both.
Any young adult would enjoy reading this book with added value in the clear window into the life of a modern Native teen. And if it sounds tempting to you, go ahead and enjoy it, I’m not going to tell anybody you’re past that age.