I can’t remember the last time I rooted for a character the way I rooted for Arnold ‘Junior’ Spirit, the fourteen-year-old narrator of Sherman Alexie’s YA novel, The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian.
Junior is a member of the Spokane Tribe and lives with his parents, grandmother and older sister on the Rez. Without a drop of self-pity, Junior tells the reader that his “head was so big that little Indian skulls orbited around it” and that “the bullies would pick me up, spin me in circles, put their finger down on my skull, and say, ‘I want to go there.'”
Skinny, born with ten extra teeth, and prone to seizures, Junior is also determined, smart and really funny. He says, “With my big feet and pencil body, I looked like a capital L walking down the road.” He both stutters and lisps and so everyone calls him a retard. “Do you know what happens to retards on the rez?” he asks the reader. “We get beat up. Yep, I belong to the Black-Eye-of-the-Month-Club.”
As if Junior’s physical problems weren’t bad enough, Junior and his family are also very poor. They’re so poor, Junior often goes hungry. But, as he explains, “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.”
His father is an alcoholic who often disappears on benders. His mother is slighty flakey, but also super smart. Junior is perfectly aware of the limitations that come from being an Indian on the rez.
…we reservation Indians don’t get to realize our dreams. We don’t get those chances. Or choices. We’re just poor. That’s all we are.
Strangely, none of this seems like whining coming from Junior’s mouth. It is what it is and he’s found ways to cope. For one thing, his best friend, Rowdy, is the toughest kid on the reservation. For another thing, his parents are kind and loving and supportive. While it seems like there are too many obstacles in Junior’s way, the reader soon learns not to underestimate him.
An incident at school prompts a visit from one of his teachers and suddenly Junior has left the rez and is traveling 23 miles into a town to attend a white school where he has the chance to make something of himself. (But not without a lot of soul-searching about what it means to have to leave the rez behind and enter the white world.) But make something of himself, he does. I can’t imagine anyone reading this book and not getting a little va-klempt at Junior’s journey.
The back cover of my edition of The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian says that the novel is inspired by Sherman Alexie’s own experiences growing up. The book has won numerous awards including the National Book Award. It’s most deserving of the praise.
This is a laugh-out-loud, tear-in-your-eye, 100% uplifting novel about the challenges of growing up and making your own way in the world. Everyone should read it.