review: Apple in the Middle


title: Apple in the Middle
author: Dawn Quigley
date: North Dakota Press; 2018
main character: Apple Starkington
YA realistic fiction
Review is based on an advanced copy


Apple Starkington is a high school student in Minnesota. Apple’s father is European American and her mother was Turtle Mountain Chippewa. Her family is upper middle class. She’s quirky, inquisitive and alone most of the time. Apple’s mother died shortly after she was born, leaving Apple to barely recognize what it means to be Turtle Mountain Chippewa.

To add insult to injury, she’s named ‘Apple’! It turns out this is an awful slur in Native American culture, calling the person white to the very core. But, Apple comes to own this identity. She learns what it means to be Native American and she comes to see how much of who she is comes from that identity.

Quigley tells the story from Apple’s world view, providing transparent glimpses into Apple’s confusion. When Apple arrives at the Reservation to stay with her grandparents, she’s judgmental and awkward and weird.

“Yes, I revert to my foreign exchange student like I do every time I stress out. What else could I do? It’s either hold my ground here (as a Shelia from Down Under) or go back to the vomit mobile.

At that moment, there was a reaction in the back row of the Indian audience. I can hear a chair scrapping as well as we all look in that direction. Either the chees puffs are doing a number on my vision, or I see a mountain walking toward me. Something so large, so mammoth, that it’s blocking out the sun. I’m still squinting trying to make out what massive form is pounding out step-by-step towards me.

OK, so it’s not a mountain. But it is the largest person I’ve ever seen.” (p. 36-37)

Yet, this mountain of a man literally and figuratively embraces Apple and her Australian accent and gives home to that weird humor.

“The mountain turns back to his clan, sweeps a glare to my family, then sets his eyes on me, winks and says, “G’day, mate.” (p. 37)

There are faux pas (and French!) and a bit of a learning curve, but Apple learns to read the body language, the colloquialism and even the signs. I appreciated how Quigley took us down those rabbit holes with Apple, keeping us wrapped in her innocence and then revealing the truth of the situation to us.

I’m getting freaked out by his behavior now. We’re too far out in the woods (or as they call it : the bush) for me to call for help. I ask again louder, “Hello! Where’s the food?” Yep, you guessed it. Junior’s reaction is that puckering-lips-while-turning-your-head response.

After I stare at him for a few more seconds, he says, “Apple, I’m a little worried ‘bout you. What is it you don’t understand? Dere’s lunch,” he says, as his chubby fingers touch the wild juneberry bush.

“I did tell you where lunch is.” And he puckers his lips as he looks at the closest juneberry bush. Smiling, he adds, “Lips make a good Indian pointer stick,” And with that, he puckers and purses his lips towards the blueberries “Apple, you don’t always need words. Be quiet and listen to find da answer you’re lookin’ for.” (p 75-76)

In her Author’s Note, Quigley writes “This book came out of the one thing that is ours, and ours alone : Native humor. It’s our ability to maintain our humor – the joy and the honor of life – and dedication to family in the face of adversity that has helped us to carry on.” I think everything fell into place for Apple as she observed how humor was compassionately used to inform and correct. It helped her carry on.

I have to say that of all the endearing characters in the book, I was most intrigued by Inez. She was such an elusive little girl! In any other story, she would have been completely invisible. But, here surrounded on this Reservation, in this world and this family that values children, she becomes an important addition to Apple’s story. I’ll leave it to another scholar to analyze her presence, I’ll just be glad she was not only there but also visible.

This is very much an insider’s story. Quigley, a Turtle Mountain Chippewa woman, relates that the book is based in stories from her growing up and from people around her. While I feel confident in reviewing this #ownvoices book that is outside my culture, I did feel the need to verify some of the facts and to be sure my names and descriptions were correct. From reading the Notes at the end of the book and checking with Cynthia Leitich Smith and  Debbie Reese, I think I know a little more about Native American culture than I did before beginning this review. We have to learn to ask what we don’t know. There are elements of the book that belong in a Native American book, but not in a review written by an African American woman. Given that ‘Apple’ is in the title and is the name of the character, I had to use it and explain it. Slurs should be left alone. But, Apple Starkington wasn’t that slur. She was the apple of her mother’s eye.