Why this book: Mia recommended it in my literature reading group as something different and a bit shorter, after our previous, somewhat longer book. It is also a National Book Award Winner.
Summary in 4 Sentences: A fictional story told in 1st person by a teenage boy who lives on the Spokane (Washington) Indian Reservation, describing the relatively hopeless and resigned-to-failure-and-obscurity world that he lived in, and his choice to leave the high school on the rez and attend the white high school, where people have hope, ambition and a belief in their future. While that decision is supported by his parents, it is a regarded by his best friend and others in his tribe as treasonous, putting personal ambition above loyalty to his tribe and community, and was a statement that he somehow deserves “better” than others in his tribe. The story is about his struggles to integrate into his white high school, while retaining his connection to the community of his Spokane Tribe. It is about his internal conflict between what he loves about the world he has grown up in, and his desire to get beyond the narrow parochialism of so many in the tribe who have no ambition to break out of the boredom and heartache of living and staying on the reservation.
My impressions: A somber theme, presented in a fun, engaging and entertaining read which includes many profound insights that I look forward to discussing with my reading group friends. The author captures the language and adolescent mentality of a precocious Native American teenage boy well – he is believable and brutally honest about his insecurities his fears, his desires, his pain and disappointments, and his few tentative hopes for his future. It is a story of conflicting cultures, individual freedom, divided loyalties, and familial love. And more. It is a short book, engaging and thought provoking.
Our protagonist goes by Junior to his Indian friends, but at Rearden High School, his white teachers preferred to call him Arnold, his given name. The story begins with Junior describing life on the rez, with his best friend Rowdy, who is somewhat his opposite. Junior is small of stature, and timid, and is picked on and regularly beat up by the bigger kids. He accepts that as just part of his life. His best friend Rowdy is the opposite – mean, aggressive, fearless, and will fight anyone. Rowdy often protects Junior, and the bullies frequently leave Junior alone because they know Rowdy is not afraid of anything or anyone, and will come after them if they harm Junior.
But Rowdy gets beat up regularly at home – by his alcoholic dad. Rowdy comes to school wearing his bruises, cuts, black eyes as a badge of his toughness. Junior’s parents are kind, would never hit him, but they are also a dysfunctional family – dad’s an alcoholic and out of work.
Junior is frustrated by how things don’t seem to work on the rez; school is not taken seriously, by the students, or the parents – not even by the teachers. Junior senses the resignation – the general sense of: “What’s the point?” Finally one of his teachers tells Junior he needs to escape – get off the rez to attend Rearden, the white high school out in the community off the rez, and not succumb to the forlorn resignation on the rez. The teacher tells him not to give up like the others. Junior considers this, agrees, and decides to take that step – and there begins the story.
Rowdy and his friends hate him for leaving their high school on the rez to go to Rearden high school. They see that as a betrayal – of them, their tribe, and their culture – going over to the other side. This decision is hard on Junior for many reasons apart from his friends on the rez rejecting him. Just getting the 20+ miles to and from school everyday is a challenge. Not only won’t his former Indian friends talk to him, the kids at Rearden don’t know what to make of a kid from the rez either. He is ignored, eats alone, people don’t talk to him – they don’t know what to say. He isn’t cool, not “popular,” not like them. But he hangs in there, eventually making a couple of friends, and the indifference of some of the kids slowly becomes grudging, but distant respect. He seeks out another nerdy kid who is also a loner and he and Junior become friends. Though his former best friend Rowdy won’t have anything to do with him any more, his new friend Gordy enjoys his company. Gordy is very smart, curious, and well-read, enjoys and inspires Junior to open up his world even more.
And then Junior decides to go out for the basketball team, even though he believes it is a futile effort. But again, he persists, works hard, and the coach sees a spark in him, and to Junior’s surprise, he makes the team. Making the basketball team changes things for Junior, as we see him work hard, create an identity for himself at Rearden, and he begins to blossom. But it also puts him in a difficult position; he eventually has to play against the team of his old high school on the rez. And the star player on his old high school is none other than Rowdy.
This book has so much in it. People from any group that feels disenfranchised and defensive about its identity, react strongly against those who leave it to find connection with the community they see as threatening. It is about people feeling trapped and the challenges of leaving what is comfortable to try something new. There is a bit of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey in Junior’s decision to go to Rearden. It is about leaving one’s tribe or culture, while also loving one’s tribe or culture. It is also about familial loyalty – his parents support him – though they are the only one’s who support him. He loves his parents in spite of their problems and dysfunctions. It’s about stepping out of one’s comfort zone, dealing with the difficulties, persisting, getting knocked down, and getting back up. Anyone who has stood up against the forces of prejudice from people they love will feel for Junior – and admire him.
Another interesting aspect of the book is that there is a “graphic” dimension to it. The author posts drawings that Junior made to express his feelings and impressions of some of the key events he describes in his life – done as one would expect from a young teenage boy and adding to understanding the emotional dimension of his experience.
It is a story that I’m told could be about many Indian reservations. But its lessons apply to many cultural sub-groups in America. It is about Native Americans, about American culture, about people, about courage, about love and family. I enjoyed and learned from this book.
Some quotes I thought worth sharing:
But I just kept thinking that my sister’s spirit hadn’t been killed. She hadn’t given up. This reservation had tried to suffocate her, had kept her trapped in a basement, and now she was out roaming the huge grassy fields of Montana. p91
“Listen,” Gordy said one afternoon, “you have to read a book three times before you know it. The first time you read (a book) you read it for the story. The plot. The movement from scene to scene that gives the book its moment, its rhythm. It’s like riding a raft down a river. You’re just paying attention to the currents….The second time you read a book, you read it for its history. For its knowledge of history. You think about the meaning of each word, and where that word came from…p95
I suddenly understood that if even a moment of a book should be taken seriously, then every moment of life should be taken seriously as well. p.95
The world, even the smallest parts of it, is filled with things you don’t know.’p97
If you let people into your life a little bit, they an be pretty damn amazing. p 129
Ever since I’ve been at Reardan, and seen how great parents do their great parenting, I realize that my folks are pretty good. Sure, my dad has a drinking problem and my mom can be little eccentric but they make sacrifices for me. They worry about me. They talk to me. And best of all , they listen to me….I’ve learned that the worst thing a parent can do is ignore their children. p153
I mean, yeah, Indians are screwed up, but we’re really close to each other. We KNOW each other. Everybody knows everybody. p153
I used to think the world was broken down by tribes. By black and white. By Indian and white. But I know that isn’t true. The world is only broken into two tribes: The people who are assholes and the people who are not. p176
Tolstoy wrote: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Well, I hate to argue with a Russian genius, but Tolstyoy didn’t know Indians. And he didn’t know that all Indian families are unhappy for the same exact reason: the fricking booze. p200
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