How I rate it: 4 of 5 stars
Plot Summary: A coming of age story of Junior, a fourteen-year-old boy living with his family on the Spokane Indian Reservation. With a sense of humor along with the blanket honesty of a young adolescent, Junior narrates stories of being bullied and making a major step forward in an attempt to take ownership of his life.
Significance: Controversial as well as comedic, there are many beautiful moments in this novel that speak to the experience of growing up on “the rez.” For those, like myself, who have extremely limited knowledge of what it is like to grow up on the reservation, it was riveting and at times heartbreaking to read Junior’s diary.
My grandmother’s greatest gift was tolerance. Now, in the old days, Indians used to be forgiving of any kind of eccentricity. In fact, weird people were often celebrated. Epileptics were often shamans because people just assumed that God gave seizure-visions to the lucky ones. Gay people were seen as magical too. I mean, like in many cultures, men were viewed as warriors and women were viewed as caregivers. But gay people, being both male and female, were seen as both warriors and caregivers. Gay people could do anything. They were like Swiss Army knives! My grandmother had no use for all the gay bashing and homophobia in the world, especially among other Indians. “Jeez,” she said, Who cares if a man wants to marry another man? All I want to know is who’s going to pick up all the dirty socks?
Note to readers: It’s an easy read, a diary written by a young person with a young audience in mind, but it is deeply compelling for kids of all ages. If you’re looking to expand you’re understanding of contemporary native life, this is an entertaining way to do that. Note: I am by no means an expert on native cultures, so I can’t speak to the truth value of everything in the book.
What I appreciated, as a writer: Serman Alexie uses his narrator, the fourteen year-old protagonist, to express many things that are politically incorrect, both about “Indians” as well as people with mental disabilities. These things are presented from the perspective of the fourteen year-old and hence we all know that the narrator’s perspective is limited and at times unreliable. Like most fourteen year-olds, he over-generalizes. Even so, the narrator’s honesty is compelling and his story itself is convincing — and, of course, the author himself grew up on a reserveration, so there’s credibility. It’s not easy for a writer to pull this off: to be provocative without simply feeding prejudice. In my opinion Alexie succeeds, and as a writer, I admire what he’s done in this work.
Notes on the Author: Sherman Alexie is a very talented writer, filmmaker, and comedian whose work spans a wide range of mediums and genres. He grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation.