Author: Alexie Sherman, 2007. Illustrated by Ellen Forney.
Genre: Young Adult. Contemporary. Coming-of-Age. Native American.
Other Details: Paperback. 230 pages.
"I have no doubt that in a year or so it'll be winning awards and being banned" - Neil Gaiman's cover blurb.
How right he was!
The narrator of this novel is 14-year old Junior (aka Arnold Spirit, Jr.) who has grown up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington State. Born with water on the brain, he has serious heath issues, stutters and lisps, is skinny and wears thick glasses. He is also very intelligent. This makes him a target for other "rez" kids and he is picked on as a matter of course. An angry outburst on his first day of high school leads to a suspension though a few days later he is visited by the teacher who had borne the brunt of his frustration. Mr. P. recognises Junior's potential and advises "you're going to find more and more hope the further you walk away from this sad, sad, sad reservation".
So Junior decides to start attending the all-white school in a nearby town. He still lives on the reservation and so is considered a traitor by his former classmates, while being a definite outsider at the new school. The novel covers his freshman year which is marked by trials, triumphs and personal loss. The text is complimented by the cartoons that Junior uses to explain his experiences and his world.
This is a beautifully written and deeply moving coming-of-age story. It is also sharply observant in terms of life on the reservation and explores issues of culture and racism.
I loved this book and even though it is aimed at a YA audience I felt that it was accessible and relevant to readers of all ages and that its themes spoke across cultures. It was a book that made me laugh and also moved me to tears more than once. I hadn't realised that it was semi-autobiographical though in retrospect it really had to be, as its narrative felt so personal especially in terms of world view.