On the front page of my edition of this book for Young Adults, twenty-two awards are listed, including National Book Award, New York Times Book Review Notable Book for Children, and Publishers Weekly Best Book of the year. Happily, the book lives up to its many bestowals of praise.
What I wasn’t aware of until after completing the book was that the story actually is, to a large extent, the author’s own story. Although the name of the 14-year-old protagonist is Arnold Spirit, Junior, rather than Sherman Alexie, Junior, many other details are the same.
Both the real Sherman and the fictional Arnold were born on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington (Sherman in 1966 and Arnold in 1992). Both developed hydrocephaly, or water on the brain, and required surgery at six months. Both overcame these obstacles as well as others, and graduated from the white high school about 20 miles from Wellpinit. And both became star basketball players at this high school.
Arnold, or “Junior” as he is known on the “rez” writes his diary with extraordinary insight, and a knack for looking on the bright side. His optimism persists in spite of constant teasing from other kids and even adults on the rez because of the way he looks: the hydrocephaly makes his head huge compared to the rest of his body, he wears “geeky” glasses, and is teased and beaten up regularly. His diary, illustrated intermittently by the wonderful drawings of Ellen Forney (but purported to be by Arnold) is his outlet. As he explains:
I think the world is a series of broken dams and floods, and my cartoons are tiny little lifeboats.”
Throughout, Arnold lightens the pathos of his life with a sense of humor that makes the hardships endured by his family and by reservation life bearable in spite of the pain they simultaneously impart. He well exemplifies the Yiddish expression “lachen mit yashcherkes” or laughing with lizards, which means: I’m laughing but it’s actually very sad. And there is much that is very sad.
On his family’s poverty he writes:
…it’s not like my mother and father were born into wealth. It’s not like they gambled away their family fortunes. My parents came from poor people who came from poor people who came from poor people, all the way back to the very first poor people.”
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.
Poverty doesn’t give you strength or teach you lessons about perseverance. No, poverty only teaches you how to be poor.”
He talks about the pervasiveness of alcoholism on the rez (a way to make pain go away, as he explains). His mom was a recovered alcoholic but his dad was still in its throes:
When the holidays rolled around, we didn’t have any money for presents, so Dad did what he always does when we don’t have enough money.
He took what little money we did have and ran away to get drunk.”
His grandmother was killed by a drunk driver, and his dad’s best friend was killed during a fight over alcohol. His older sister, too, died because of an alcohol-related incident. He objects to Tolstoy’s famous opening line to Anna Karenina that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”:
Well I hate to argue with a Russian genius, but Tolstoy didn’t know Indians. And he didn’t know that all Indian families are unhappy for the same exact reason: the fricking booze.”
When he and his parents went to the cemetery to clean graves, Arnold “wept and wept and wept because I knew that I was never going to drink and because I was never going to kill myself and because I was going to have a better life out in the white world.” And he does. But not because he hates his Indian heritage:
I cried because so many of my fellow tribal members were slowly killing themselves and I wanted them to live. I wanted them to get strong and get sober and get the hell off the rez. … Reservations were meant to be prisons, you know? Indians were supposed to move onto reservations and die. We were supposed to disappear.”
Alexie makes you so glad he fought not to disappear. This book of laughs and tears and strength and courage is both a love letter and a challenge to his fellow Indians to raise themselves out of the prison the white man put them in, and realize the joy of a life fulfilled. As his basketball coach told him Vince Lombardi had said, “The quality of a man’s life is in direct proportion to his commitment to excellence, regardless of his chosen field of endeavor.” Arnold/Sherman does his best in spite of nearly insuperable odds to make this dream come true.
Evaluation: All the awards for this book were given justifiably. This is a unique and creative contribution to young adult literature. Arnold’s voice seems authentic for his age, and his positive attitude toward the tragedies of his life has much to teach young teens. But even adults won’t be disappointed!