I was glad that this was the book we chose for the next installment of the CBR book club. I had been meaning to read it for ages. And while it wasn’t what I expected (first off, this book was way more “Y” than I generally expect in a “YA” book), it certainly didn’t disappoint.
Arnold “Junior” Spirit lives on a Spokane reservation in rural Washington (I think) with his mother, father, sister, and grandmother. They live in poverty, familiar with hatred and racism, engulfed in alcoholism, and surrounded by death. Car accidents, fires, gunshot wounds, and all sorts of fatal accidents (ahem…all caused by alcohol) are a daily part of life. And Junior is different from the rest of his tribe living on the Rez. He was born with excessive water on the brain, has terrible eyesight, and an enormous head, leaving him victim to bullying and ridicule from all of the other kids (and lots of adults, too).
But Junior is smarter than almost anyone on the Rez, except for maybe his sister Mary. And Junior decides that in order for him to thrive and survive as a human, he needs to leave the Rez and go to school in the neighboring “white” town.
This book tells the story of Junior’s freshman year at Rearden High School: the enemies he makes at home who call him a traitor to his people, the new friends who eventually accept him and care about him, everything he learns at school, the cartoons that he draws to help him deal with all of the changes in his life, and what he learns about himself and his people. Its also about the sorrow and blight of the Native American people, which I am not as qualified to comment on, but I’ll try.
Nearly everything I know about living on a Reservation I’ve learned from TV. We watch a lot of Longmire in my house, and after just a few episodes, I had so many questions about life on a Reservation, I found myself deep in internet research. Ashamed that I was so ignorant how Reservations work, how the US government manages them (government mandated sterilization was a particular topic that had me seething), and what the quality of life is like there, I read as much as I could. And it was mostly depressing. But also a little bit encouraging.
Yes, the poverty and alcoholism are overwhelming. But the pride in family and heritage is something that is sadly lacking in many cultures. I mean, I know I’m Irish, but what does that mean in my everyday life? That I like to drink beer? What kind of traditions should I be aware of that were important to my ancestors? I wish I knew.
And this pride is evident in many parts of this book. Junior and his friend Rowdy love going to the powwows on the reservation so much, Junior is willing to risk the probable beating that he’ll receive from a drunken bully just to watch the dancing and listen to the music.
This book was much sadder than I expected. Junior has had to deal with so much at such a young age, it was infuriating. But his inner strength and his cartoons were such a wonderful way for him to deal with his pain. I was rooting for him every step of the way, even if that meant that Junior will eventually have to turn his back on his family and the Rez.
My only criticism of this book is that there simply aren’t others like it. Where are the Native American voices in fiction? I’d be eager to read more if anyone has any recommendations. Thanks for choosing this book, fellow Cannonballers. It only took me an afternoon to read it, but every minute of it was time well spent.