Author: Sherman Alexie
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company, 2009
Where I got it: I bought it from Barnes & Noble.
Arnold "Junior" Spirit has lived on the Spokane Indian Reservation for his whole life, all 14 years of it. But he knows he needs to get out or he'll never make it out of there alive. His only other option? To transfer to Reardan High School, 22 miles outside the rez and full of white people.
Junior's got a lot to deal with. He's the only Indian in this strange new place (aside from the school mascot) with strange new rules. He has to deal with being shunned by his own people, who accuse him of being a traitor to his tribe. And he has to deal with major life changes and tragedy, all while trying to just make it from one day to the next.
Alexie examines serious issues like alcoholism, death, racism and poverty, yet still manages to be funny throughout. Junior gets through everything with as positive an attitude as he can and is able to make the most depressing situations humorous. It's often gallows humor, yes, but it's still laugh-out-loud funny. Junior talks to his audience in a very conversational and familiar tone, creating a kinship with the reader.
Of course, there are many heartbreaking moments that just bleed grief—Junior won't come right out and say what happens at first, but will ease the reader into it, sometimes giving them a shock in the process. His pain is palpable and you can almost hear him wail in mourning behind his written words and cartoons. Yet he's always able to pick himself up and move on, bringing back his unique perspective on the life he was given and the life he chooses for himself.
Junior's cartoons throughout (the work of Ellen Forney) add an extra-textual element that greatly enhances Junior's narration. It often makes the tone light, yet communicates pain and fear through this lightness, creating a complex and more complete story. It also provides us with a little more insight into Junior's mind and the way he sees the world.
This book is largely autobiographical, as Alexie grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation and transfered to the nearby white high school. Wellpinit and Reardan are real places, and Alexie pays them homage in his dedication. Because this is based on fact, Alexie's depictions of life on a reservation can be trusted—not many teens are aware of what that's like even though it should be taught to them (I learned quite a bit too). Alexie provides an honest and blunt picture for his readers; it's presented in a light-hearted fashion, yet retains a sadness that tends to stay with you.
This book has been banned earlier this month, on a side note. I am very upset and saddened by this, especially considering that the objections focus on the swearing and the mentions of masturbation and a few other sexual insinuations (though nothing is ever described in detail). I don't believe these to be good reasons to ban a book in a high school—those kids already know what masturbation is, sorry to break it to you. Missing out on such a wonderful and relevant book is a shame—it teaches about multicultural issues and things going on in our country right now, not to mention it deals with subjects that should be addressed in a classroom setting. It will open up discussion and bring up things that are often swept under the proverbial rug.