The Navajo people, who once shunned the educational system of their conquerors, which imposed suppression of the Navajo language, have embraced education as their best hope of survival. They dream of sending their children off to higher education and seeing them return to become leaders in their tribal communities. Yet the reluctance of Native parents to see their children actually go--and possibly not return--and the attachment of the kids to a place and way of life that is profoundly their own, creates emotional conflicts. Even a distance of 600 miles, which is how far Thomas will be from the reservation if he attends Eastern New Mexico University, is enough to create a crisis of abandonment between Thomas and his father, Jazz. Similarly, Tamara wants to go on scholarship to four-year Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo. But as much as her parents support her ambitions, they cannot bear the idea of her going so far away and urge her to attend a two-year community college that is closer by.
Add to these tensions some of the problems — broken families, substance abuse, teen pregnancy — that Thomas and Tamara see around them, and these teens carry burdens far weightier than those of most 18-year-olds. As standouts at Navajo Pine High School and steeped in a deep Navajo tradition of running, they become the objects of family and community hopes while they carry on a typical adolescent struggle to understand themselves.
Thomas has a rebellious streak, signaled by his brightly colored Mohawk haircut, which makes him easy to spot as he circles the track. He is also involved in a racially tinged conflict with one of his white teachers that almost gets him tossed off the cross-country team days before a pivotal race. Dedicated and driven, he likes to test himself against "Heartbreak Hill," the infamous ascending pass on the local cross-country course, and hopes to win a state title and a college scholarship. Yet Thomas cannot quite free himself from the mesh of a broken family, which includes his reformed but troubled alcoholic father, an absent mother and the aunt who took him in when his grandmother died in a car accident.
Tamara, too, is a runner and she is also senior class president and a top contender for valedictorian, completing an impressive course load that includes the Navajo language and advanced placement calculus. She is upbeat, charismatic and popular among her fellow students. Her family is happy and stable, and her parents supportive of her ambitions to pursue an engineering degree. Yet even she expresses deep ambivalence about seeking education off the reservation and, given her career prospects, of moving away for good.
What Thomas calls his love of "the mountains, the trees and the thought of being free" as he makes practice runs through the ochre, rock-faced landscape of the reservation speaks eloquently to the spiritual attachment these Native American youths have to their land and to the traditional Navajo way of life. Up Heartbreak Hill is a poignant account of how these two teenagers manage a dramatic coming of age under the long shadow of a troubled history.