Arnold aka Junior is a Spokane Indian living on a reservation. Born with brain damage to alcoholic parents in a town where the school textbooks are decades old, he hasn’t been dealt the best hand in life. So one day, with the help of a teacher from the rez school, he takes his future into his own hands and applies to go to the school in a nearby farming town where the only Indian is the school mascot. Junior sticks out like a sore thumb, but now he’s going to a different school, everyone on the rez sees him as a traitor.
It’s written incredibly well, perfectly replicating the voice of a fourteen year old boy. Junior not only has the usual fourteen year old boy worries about looks, girls, basketball, but also worries about stuff like his parents’ alcoholism and the prospect of living the rest of his life in grinding poverty. It’s all written in a matter of fact way that somehow makes Junior’s life and prospects on the rez all the more horrifying. Junior chats about the funerals he’s been to - mostly alcohol-related deaths - with such normality that you kind of have to read the passages twice and then your brain goes, ‘Wait ... That’s not right.’
The treatment Junior receives from the other people on the reservation for defecting to a white school is pretty awful and it broke my heart to see how hard it was for anyone to actually make something of themselves and how crappy their prospects were. Junior’s parents are neglectful and alcoholics, but they genuinely love their son and want him to do better than a life on the rez. On the other hand, Junior’s tale is ultimately uplifting and hopeful. It’s also interspersed with some great humour and it had me laughing out loud on occasion.
The strapline on the copy of the book I read was by Neil Gaiman. He said the book was so good he predicted that in a year it would be winning awards and being banned all over the place. He was right. The Absolutely True Story of a Part Time Indian has won a bunch of awards, and has also incurred some conservative wrath. I don’t really get it. I’ll admit that Alexie uses some pretty ripe language, but seriously, what fourteen year old doesn’t? The themes introduced in the book - alcoholism, racism, social inequality, poverty - are pretty serious, but I think people underestimate the capacity of younger teens to process and understand topics like this.
I really enjoyed this book. I live in south-east England, so I know very little about Native American culture and life, so this book was a bit of an eye opener. I had no idea about the social inequality this group of people face, along with alcoholism and poverty, so as an awareness-raising book, this works really well. It also happens to be a great story and a cracking read.