Ritchie Boy: The Life and Suicide of a Young Alaska Native, by Ida Hildebrand. Published by Universe, Inc. 132 pages. $13.95 (softcover).
“Ritchie Boy” is not a book written to entertain readers. Its purpose is far more serious: to save lives and heal the bereaved.
Author Ida Hildebrand, who lives in Anchorage, is frank about the traumas that have rocked her family.
“The men in my family are dying young, as suicide steals my siblings,” she writes in her introduction. “My brother, Richard Vernon Hildebrand, known as Ritchie Boy, committed suicide on August 6, 1987.”
She tells the story of Ritchie’s life and death in a straightforward manner, beginning with how he came to her home as a skinny babe with trench mouth. Her enthusiastic siblings and generous parents agreed to adopt him from his impoverished, overwhelmed biological parents. In the years that followed, he blossomed into an adored child, known for his wit and charm. But when he turned 10, their beloved older brother, Barney, died in an accidental shooting and, mere months later, their mother an extraordinary woman who anchored their lives perished in a plane crash. Ida was grown by then and persevered. But for young Ritchie, the losses took the sparkle out of life and precipitated his gradual, heartbreaking slide into life’s dark side.
Others have written memoirs about painful pasts and troubled families. But the author does not stop with the fatal day when Ritchie shot himself through the heart.
Hildebrand spent a lot of painful time pondering her brother’s death and the grim fates of others from her family, her home village of Nulato and Alaska’s Native community. She devotes the second half of the book to discussing her analysis of the situation, how she came to terms with her own grief and her advice on how others can avoid the pitfalls that destroyed her brother.
She includes her internal conversations, often harsh, with her dead brother and with a God whose role in the process is difficult to define.
She came to view the suicide epidemic that afflicts young Alaska Native men as a spiritual ailment. With insight, she dissects the fractured families, lingering racism, unemployment, humiliating poverty, marijuana, other drugs, low expectations and party scene that undermine even the most promising youth. She also critiques organized religion and societal guilt as misleading weights upon troubled souls. Speaking both generally and personally, she is most bitter in denouncing false friends and the scourge of alcohol.
Alcohol and drugs, she writes, lie to and confuse youth until they lose themselves and see everything as false and worthless. Of Ritchie’s fate, she says:
“When he finally realized what he had done to himself, he committed suicide the price of the self-imposed spiritual poverty of Indian men who too readily accept and assume the definitions of society as well as caretaker roles and burdens greater than they can handle.”
Through wrestling with her own grief, anger and dismay, Hildebrand attained a hard-won peace. She is eager to share this painful wisdom with others, as a tribute to her beloved brother, to complete her mourning and to give meaning to his brief life.
Thus she ends the book with heartfelt advice directed to people experiencing tough times, especially young people and Alaska Native families.
Hildebrand urges a return to spirituality, family and nature as sources of direction and strength. She emphasizes choices we make in our lives and the necessity of accepting responsibility for our own paths. Some of her advice is down-to-earth, such as urging people to pursue good nutrition, smile more, attend healing rituals and pursue creative daydreaming.
Some readers may balk at her views on religion or her uncensored language. She describes swearing at Jesus in the depths of her anguish and urges Natives to turn to their own spiritual traditions rather than churches from the Old World. She both cites New Age views, using terms such as “centered,” and quotes the Biblical Psalms. The true God, at least for Natives, dwells within us and within glorious nature, she writes.
She includes a section of resources for self-help, including the Sunny Denyaavee Center in Fairbanks, the Minneapolis recovery center run by Dr. Joan Larson, books, films and Internet references.
“Ritchie Boy,” for all its tragic content, ends on a brave note of defiant love and survival. This is not a book to be taken lightly, although it can be read in just a few hours sitting. Unpolished and unvarnished, it speaks with the eloquence of truth and mission. For people confronting issues of despair and suicide, “Ritchie Boy” offers a strong and important message.
Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.
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