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Real-life family mystery inspires debut novel ‘I Can Make This Promise’

Author Christine Day’s mom, adopted as a child, searched for her Native American family.

Christine Day talks to kids in West Seattle, Washington, about her book “I Can Make This Promise.” The story, set in Seattle, involves a girl who is curious about her family’s Native American heritage. (Desirae Wilkerson)

What are you? Edie Green gets that question a lot — and she is tired of it.

Edie is the mixed-race main character in Christine Day’s first novel, “I Can Make This Promise.” And she knows that people are curious not about her dad, who is “white American,” but her Native American mother.

Edie wants to know more about her mother’s heritage, too, but her mother doesn’t seem to have answers. She was adopted by a white couple when she was a baby and grew up separate from the Native American community.

Then Edie finds a box of old letters and photos in the attic of her home, and she starts trying to piece together the truth.

Knowing your family heritage

As she visits schools and talks about her book, Day has discovered something interesting about her audience.

“Like Edie, many kids have questions about their family’s past, no matter their heritage,” Day said in a phone call from her home in Lake Stevens, Washington, near Seattle. They are curious about their ancestry. What were their grandparents and great-grandparents like when they were young? What was the world like, for them?

Day has these same questions. Like Edie’s mom, her mother was a Native American child adopted away from her tribe. When Day’s mother was in her 20s, she began to look for her biological family. She had only their last name and a vague idea of where they might be, but she was able to find family members.

When she had children — Day and a younger daughter — she shared this information with them. Today all three continue to learn more about their roots and community, as enrolled members of the Upper Skagit tribe.

Because there are so few books with contemporary Native American characters, Day’s novel connects especially deeply with Native American kids.

“One little girl at an elementary school ran up and gave me a big hug,” Day said. “She was so excited that she and Edie were from the same tribe.”

Visiting Seattle's 'Gum Wall'

The novel is set in Seattle, where Day grew up, and she vividly describes the Space Needle, “looking like a flying saucer,” and the historic Pike Place Market. Edie even visits Seattle’s colorful “Gum Wall,” which is decorated with wads of chewing gum.

As a girl, Day was an avid fan of the Harry Potter books, “Holes” by Louis Sachar and animal tales. She loved writing in journals and creating plays and short stories. As she grew older, she tried her hand at young-adult fantasy. But when she got the idea for Edie’s story, “something clicked,” Day said.

The first draft was a “creative whirlwind,” she said. Day started writing it in May 2016 and finished about a month later.

Next came the hard work of revision. Day wanted to carefully grow Edie’s voice and unique perspective, and she needed to research Native American activism and federal policies that affected Edie’s mom (and Day’s mother).

Movies also play a part in the book. With two friends, Edie is creating a short, animated film for a contest. And Day drew upon her college film studies to develop one adult character’s connection with Hollywood, including little-known details about Native American actors and movie characters.

Day is finishing her second novel, which involves a road trip in the Pacific Northwest. As with “I Can Make This Promise,” the greatest challenge is also the greatest joy, she said: “Learning to trust myself as a storyteller and craft authentic Native content and characters.”

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