I bought this book on a camping trip stopover a few years ago. I wanted to read it so badly, but was always waiting for what seemed like the right time; some books are like that for me. It has been sitting in my TBR pile ever since and it finally felt right to read it this last week, a reward for finally finishing a book I really struggled through. It was an excellent reward; I haven’t been this obsessed with finishing a book since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was released.
Sherman Alexie has written a book that is at least partly inspired by his own experiences. It is the story of Junior, growing up on the Spokane Indian Reserve. Junior Spirit is growing up on reserve, in a community scarred by poverty and alcohol and an utter lack of hope. He is a typical teenager – a little obsessed with sex, making fun of his sister, making jokes about adult situations that seem strange coming from such a young man. Junior is different though – he grew up with some medical issues, he is sensitive and emotional, and is able to gather the courage to dream of something more and have some hope. On his first day of high school Junior receives a copy of a math book that has his mother’s name in it – he realizes that nobody expects the students on the reservation to have a future, that they are spinning their wheels in a place with no hope. After getting suspended, his teacher convinces him that there is something more for him, that he should go to school in the nearby small white town. While most of the reservation residents are angry at him, his family is supportive, so Junior makes the leap of hope.
It’s so funny and sad at the same time, and Junior makes an incredible journey over the course of an eventful year. It feels so real; I live in a place with a lot of indigenous people and I see similar struggles and courage around me every day, particularly the expansive and loving family dynamics. It was so satisfying to see those experiences reflected back in this beautifully written book.
This book also contains art by Ellen Forney, an excellent and interesting cartoonist who has written her own magnificent books, including Marbles. Junior is a cartoonist – he uses drawing to both express himself and to better understand his world, and Forney draws his art very carefully. There is an interview with Forney at the end of the book that explains the thought and care she put into the 65 drawings, using the various drawing styles to express Junior’s emotions and mental state in addition to carefully selecting the subject matter. It was a really integral part of the book.
I love this book so much and I want everyone to read it. HOWEVER. I was looking it up online in preparation for this review, and came across a number of articles indicating that he has sexually harassed several women, damaging the career of at least some of them. I am so incredibly disappointed, but my disappointment is small compared to that of others, including indigenous author Monique Laban. Her feelings about this is more important than mine. Still, Alexie’s behaviour doesn’t mean this book, this collaboration between himself and Forney, isn’t wonderful and important.
CBR10 Bingo category: White Whale