Is there a part of our adolescent experience that refuses to go away, that covertly colors reflections of our ‘grown-up” selves? Maybe that is why Young Adult novels are mostly unrecognizable to me as such unless I have been told that they belong to that genre. Feisty fourteen year old Arnold Spirit (Junior), Spokane Indian and budding cartoonist, is searching for the place where hope resides, and my senior-citizen-aged-self felt every pebble beneath his moccasins as if I were walking with him.
Born hydro encephalitic and never expected to survive infancy, Junior’s large head and hands, and extra-long feet (size 11 in third grade) belie his intellect and potential basketball prowess. His scholarship and looks (“with my big feet and pencil body, I look like a capital L walking down the road”) have made him the perpetual target of reservation bullies. Cartooning is his coping mechanism for life’s problems. He says, “I think the world is a series of broken dams and floods, and my cartoons are tiny little life boats.”
Junior needs even more life boats after enrolling at the rich white kids’ school 22 miles from the reservation, his only path to a quality education and to empowerment to find hope. He abruptly becomes an outcast in two worlds. Even his BFF Rowdy has ditched him for being a traitor to his tribe. They call him an apple- red on the outside and white on the inside. Gradually, Junior makes a few friends at his new school while still a pariah on the rez. “I was half Indian in one place and half white in the other. It was like being an Indian was my job, but only a part time job, and it didn’t pay well at all.”
Sound depressing? It Isn’t! Search for self, poverty of a people, alcoholism in a family/ tribe, bullying, love and loss and loyalty of family and friends are practically universal and ageless themes. Junior faces his coming of age obstacles and finds his strengths with resonating humor, sharp wit and his cartooning. If fact, you can flip through and look just at the cartoons for a condensed version of the story. Note the differences in the first and last cartoons, as Junior’s confidence grows.
This book won five awards including the National Book Award. It is an easy, entertaining read, and I finshed it in an evening. Author Sherman Alexie has published other books, poems, and has a new release( short stories) that I can hardly wait to read.
RCW -neighborhood reader