Another month, another library book club pick selected because I needed an excuse to get around to reading it! This book has been out for a while and shows up on my radar every few months or so when someone gets mad about the book being taught to poor innocent high-schoolers or whatever the case is at the time, and of course I am intrigued by books that make people mad (which is probably not what those angry people are going for), but I’d never managed to actually find out what the book is about, which is an important component in my book selection process. So I figured I’d find out, with some nice patrons along for the ride!
The main character, Arnold, is an Indian kid on a reservation outside of Spokane who also happens to have some physical problems, from a lisp and stutter to giant feet to seizures, that make him an outcast on the reservation. He has one best friend who hangs out with him and protects him a little bit, but that friendship becomes strained pretty quickly once Arnold decides he wants to go to school off the reservation.
That’s pretty much what this book is about — a kid leaving what he knows and doesn’t necessarily like very much to go do something new that he might like better. I had sort of presumed from Arnold’s self-description that this would be a book about overcoming physical impediments and realizing that everyone is as messed up as you are, but that’s really not the case. In fact, after those problems are listed at the beginning of the book, they almost never come up again. Arnold is, outside of his looks and his speech, a regular teenage dude who draws comics sprinkled throughout the novel, tries to figure out how to balance his home life and his school life, and, most importantly for the angry people above, thinks about sex.
What actually drives the novel is that second part, the disconnect between life on the reservation and life in the lily-white town of Reardan outside the reservation, where Arnold notes that he and the mascot are the only Indians. Arnold has to beg rides or hitchhike or walk 20 miles to get to and from school. His family is poor and alcoholic and becomes depressingly smaller over the course of the book. His friends and most of the other Indians on the reservation consider him a traitor for leaving. When he scores a personal victory by helping the Rearden basketball team beat his old school team, he quickly realizes that a white victory over Indians is not something he really wants to celebrate.
I wouldn’t say that I particularly enjoyed this novel, which lacked the plot and character development that I was hoping for (that’s my bad) and had a sort of meandering diary-style narrative that left me confused at times, but I found it absolutely fascinating in its portrayal of Indian life, which I think we’ve established I don’t know too much about, and its portrayal of teens as kind of boring humans, which I don’t see all that much amidst my pile of dystopian YA trilogies. It’s definitely brain food rather than brain candy, and I will likely be seeking out more from Alexie in the future.
Recommendation: For those looking to learn more about Indian life and those looking for a more-realistic-than most tale of teenagerhood.