I’ll be candid- I wasn’t going to finish this book. It’s a difficult read; there are some shockingly violent passages: (character burned to death: check; character shot in the face: check; character killed by a drunk driver: check; etc. etc.). If it weren’t for the fact that it was the only book I brought with me on a 14 hour car drive, I probably would have set it down & never finished it. But circumstances being what they were, I did finish, and although it unsettled me, I found it profoundly moving and refreshing.
“I used to think the world was broken down by tribes, by Black and White. By Indian and White. But I know this isn't true. The world is only broken into two tribes: the people who are assholes and the people who are not.”
As a 14-year-old boy with a pretty serious medical history growing up in an alcohol- and poverty-plagued community in Washington state’s Spokane Indian reservation, Arthur-called-Junior’s formative years are about as different from mine as I could imagine. The plot centers around Junior’s dual identity after he transfers to a wealthy “white” school off the reservation. To his white classmates and teachers, Indian = Invisible. To his fellow Spokane Indians, including his one and only friend and protector, Junior is a traitor to his culture and community. While Junior struggles with finding his place on the totem pole (see that? culturally insensitive idioms pervade our language!), I love that he never becomes truly adrift in his identity. Junior is surprisingly confident, resilient, and centered.
|Fantastic art throughout the book by Ellen Forney|
“Life is a constant struggle between being an individual and being a member of the community.”
Identity is in part Who am apart from these people? and Who am I among these people? While Junior knows who he is, he struggles to assert his individuality and pursue his personal dreams without betraying his community. This struggles comes to a head during a critical basketball game where Junior finds himself playing against his old teammates- the same kids that bullied him and daily rejected him. Having found acceptance on his new team and at his new school, Junior feels the need to defend himself and justify his choice to transfer off the reservation, and in fighting his personal battle, loses sight of the battle for pride and recognition that his community is daily waging against the wealthy, the privileged, the White.
“Poverty doesn’t give you strength or teach you lessons about perseverance. No, poverty only teaches you how to be poor.”
For a short book, it sure packs a lot of punch. Along with addressing cultural identity, this book also takes an honest look at poverty, racism, death, alcoholism, loss and bullying. While it isn’t necessarily enjoyable to read about violence, rejection and misery, I am deeply impressed with the author’s ability to discuss these issues with honesty brevity, and a lack of romanticization that was on the opposite end of the spectrum from “after-school special.” For enjoyment, this book gets 3 stars (like I said- a hard read) for cultural competency and being a bold voice, 5 stars. We’ll compromise with 4 stars.
“I grabbed my book and opened it up. I wanted to smell it. Heck, I wanted to kiss it. Yes, kiss it. That's right, I am a book kisser. Maybe that's kind of perverted or maybe it's just romantic and highly intelligent.”
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