"I was always hot in here in the summer and could see my breath on December mornings; the floors were hard and cold with no carpet; I couldn't call anyone because we didn't have a phone; I couldn't watch color cable TV; I had to walk a mile to go to the store. It was the best time of my life," writes Eddie Chuculate.
He's describing the four-room shack in Muskogee, Okla., where he lived with his grandparents for long stretches of his peripatetic childhood. In his memoir, "This Indian Kid," he also recalls times he lived with his mother and stepdad and younger siblings in small towns around Oklahoma: Tishomingo, Calera, Hanna, Milburn. By the time he started high school, he'd been in 14 schools in nine years.
Chuculate, a Star Tribune copy editor, doesn't pretend all that moving around was a piece of cake, and he regrets not having enough time with his siblings to become a true big brother. But in this charming memoir, written in straightforward prose and illustrated with black-and-white family photos and school portraits, his emphasis is on the positive.
His Creek and Cherokee heritage is a source of pride. "I can't say I ever felt singled out or excluded from anything because of my race," he writes. He was gifted at sports, loved fishing with his grandpa and lifelong best friend Lonnie and began writing at an early age, accumulating a folder of stories and sketches by the time he was in second grade.
In high school, this focus paid off when he began writing sports for the local newspaper. He was given the chance by his baseball coach/journalism teacher, a life-changing mentor named Bob Branan.
The family lived close to the poverty line, but Chuculate's stories about this, while filled with sharp details about ill-fitting shoes and off-brand products, are gentle in spirit, marked by rueful humor. Writing a big "P" with magic marker on a crappy K-mart tennis racquet didn't turn it into a $200 Prince, after all.
When both his mother and stepdad were out of work in Tishomingo, Eddie knocked on doors to see if anyone needed their lawn mowed. He ended up in a huge yard with knee-high grass, using a mower with a dull blade and an empty gas tank, returning to his waiting family with $15 around sunset.
"We went to Larry's IGA and Momma got hamburger meat and Hamburger Helper, some pop, a box of vanilla wafers, pickle loaf and white bread, and potato chips, and she put a couple of dollars in the tank," recalls Chuculate. "I saved us that time."
Another time — a critical one, when everything could have changed for the worse — Chuculate was saved by the restraint and insight of the policemen and judge who kept him out of juvenile detention, despite a serious act of vandalism he committed with a friend. Fortunately, he knew enough not to squander that second chance, finding the self-respect that turned a "poor boy, sneak-thief and vandal" into the sweet hero we meet in these pages.
Marion Winik, a Baltimore-based writer and professor, will next review Samantha Harvey's "Orbital."
This Indian Kid
By: Eddie Chuculate.
Publisher: Scholastic, 207 pages, $19.99.
Event: 6:30 p.m. Fri., Red Balloon Bookshop, Mpls., free.