Even though he’s a goofy-looking kid with a history of medical issues, socially awkward Arnold “Junior” Spirit still shows a lot of promise. He’s one of the best students at his school on the Spokane Indian Reservation, and he’s also a talented cartoonist and basketball player. As Junior starts to become aware of the dead-end lives that his fellow Indians are living “on the rez”, he comes to realize that in order to have a future he’s going to have to get out. Enrolling in the “white school” across town is an extremely unpopular decision with his friends and neighbors, but it’s a choice he has to make. It’s tough to imagine how Junior’s life could get any harder…until, of course, it does.
This is a raw, honest book that doesn’t pull any punches. I appreciated the way that Mr. Alexie was very blunt in discussing Junior’s struggles, both as an adolescent and as a Native American growing up in poverty. I don’t know very much about the culture of American Indians, so it was awesome to get a sneak peek inside a modern-day reservation. Mr. Alexie was brutally honest in his portrayal of the Spokane Indian Reservation, including descriptions of alcoholism and domestic violence. “The Rez” came across as a sad, desperate kind of place, and it’s easy to see why Junior would work so hard to get out.
This novel seemed like a short read, but that might just be because it’s such a page-turner. The outstanding illustrations by Ellen Fortney were both hilarious and heartfelt as well. It’s important to note that several school districts have banned this book because of some graphic content, but I didn’t feel like it was anything that would be unfamiliar to today’s teenagers. What really bothered me was that the supposed “objectionable content” involved normal issues from Junior’s adolescence, and hardly anyone seemed to be bothered by the tragic circumstances of everyday life on the reservation! This is just my personal opinion here, but maybe people who haven’t actually read this book are getting upset about the wrong things! In any case, this was one of the best modern young adult novels that I’ve read since starting this project, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to any (older) boys!