Sherman Alexie is of Spokane/Coeur d’Alene heritage; he was born on the Spokane reservation in Washington and had hydrocephalus when he was a kid. He attended the local white high school and played basketball before going to Gonzaga and Washington State University. A B.A. in American Studies later, check he started writing poetry, and then novels, winning the great-young-novelist kind of awards. One of his short stories was adapted, with his collaboration, into the movie Smoke Signals. This novel is his first for YAs, and has won many more awards.
The story was inspired by his own life: Arnold Spirit, Jr. (called Junior on the rez) was born in the same town (Wellpinit) as Mr. Alexie, and made the same choice to go to Rearden, the all-white high school with an Indian as their mascot, after the same incident — discovering that his geometry book was the same book his mother had used, thirty years earlier. There, he has to confront his own heritage and what that means to him — as well as what his decision means to the rest of his reservation. He fights his own expectations, the expectations of the other students, and the expectations of his old best friend, Rowdy.
This is a really depressing book, and it’s made even more awful by the fact that it’s generally true. Junior comments that he’d been to forty-two funerals by the time he was fourteen, and most of the white kids he knew hadn’t even been to five. At fourteen, I’d been to three or four funerals, and mostly because my great-grandparents had still been alive at that age. There’s a passage about the grinding poverty that Junior’s rez has, and it burned with every word.
It sucks to be poor, and it sucks to feel that you somehow deserve to be poor. You start believing that you’re poor because you’re stupid and ugly. And then you start believing that you’re stupid and ugly because you’re Indian. And because you’re Indian, you start believing you’re destined to be poor. It’s an ugly circle and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Even if you take out the “Indian” and substitute any other ethnic/racial minority, it’s still true, and painful. Not that I would know — I’m white, and even though I certainly didn’t grow up with money, we weren’t crushingly poor. We had, as the book says, hope — something which Junior has and clings to, despite a lot of evidence to the contrary.
This is realistic fiction with an extra dose of reality. For those of us who are contented white people, or those of us who believe that perhaps affirmative action is done because anyone who wants a chance can have one, this is a sock in the face. It’s also a reminder that poverty begets poverty, unfortunately — and the opposite is true. Wealth begets wealth — it’s easy to be successful when one’s parents have enough money to send one to the best schools, and the best colleges, and to start one out in life. I can’t imagine living in Junior’s situation — Mr. Alexie’s situation — and while I feel relieved that Mr. Alexie did so well, thousands in his situation didn’t.
I’d recommend this book to complacent white people. Also everyone else, although it certainly isn’t a happy book. It’s intended for YAs, and I’d say that those in that age group should enjoy it as well. It’s also a good book for stereotypical boy readers, being that a significant part of the plot revolves around basketball. Probably the most lighthearted part of the book is Junior’s drawings, and I think most readers would enjoy them as well as I did. 5/5 stars.