My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I’ve been looking for something like this: a book that touches on real contemporary issues (poverty, racism, the insanely high mortality rate on reservations—could just be the book, but I doubt that) without feeling the need to set up a black-and-white dichotomy where the good guys, and especially the narrator, can do no wrong, and all the evils are tidily summed up in some ‘other’ who isn’t everyone the narrator grew up with.
The narrator here, Junior, has a hell of a personality. He’s bookish, which is common in novels and here driven by his miserable health problems; but he also gets into fights, plays basketball like a BAMF, and walks twenty miles when he can’t get a ride to the totally-white school he’s convinced his parents to let him go to.
Oh, also he draws. Ellen Forney’s cartoons are a wonderful addition to this book, and for that alone it’s worth getting in print rather than as an e-book. They’re snarky little bits, with an underlying sweet side that avoids dipping into the saccharine. Too many things happen for Alexie to linger on the cute moments, which is nice: there aren’t a lot of setting changes, so the fast pacing works. I could see some people having issues with it, but given the age range, it makes sense to me.
There aren’t any real villains in this story (unless you count alcohol). There are people whom Junior has issues with, and definite jerkfaces, but the behavior never reduces anyone to a stereotypical bully. Yes, it’s a high school and there are people being stupid…but the people being stupid aren’t who you’d expect.
Which touches nicely on the theme of alienation. Junior feels like he’s betraying his roots by going to the better all-white school, and pretty much the whole town agrees. But if he wants a better life, and wants to stop getting beaten up (and get access to better resources—it is insane how much poor kids lose out on; he’s using his mother’s textbook and I can tell you this happens in poor urban areas too), then he has to embrace the new school. From a pragmatic sense, he’s made absolutely the right decision. And there’s no reason he can’t someday come back and do good for the friends and relations he’s abandoning now…but from a moral or an emotional side, what is he doing?
None of this is so blatant in the text it burns. Again, age range could well be a factor. A MG/YA book is expected to be a certain level of entertaining. I haven’t read more Alexie (will be rectifying that shortly), but I imagine the rapidity of events, and the lack of real lingering on any one particular tragedy, is deliberate for this intended audience.
Overall, I think this is a good read for people who want to enjoy a good story—and learn about life on a reservation—without having to dive headfirst into the deeper issues.
Also, it’s a lot of fun.