Illustrated by Ellen Forney
“Poverty doesn’t give you strength or teach you lessons about perseverance. No, poverty only teaches you how to be poor.”
Fourteen-year-old Junior has spent his entire life on the Spokane Indian reservation, the subject of frequent bullying due to the lisp and stutter created by being born with hydrocephalus. When he unexpectedly loses his cool and hits his teacher with a textbook, he is suspended from the reservation school. Rather than returning at the end of his suspension, he seizes the opportunity to enroll at Reardan High School, in a nearby all-white farming town. Reardan is only twenty-two miles from Wellpinit, but it feels like another planet, where Junior must adjust to the culture shock in order to achieve his dream of becoming an artist.
Sherman Alexie’s popular young adult novel is a darkly funny story of the sort where you have to laugh so that you don’t cry. The emotional swings can be sharp, going from an awkwardly humourous anecdote to a character death in a matter of pages. At fourteen, Junior has attended forty-two funerals in his life, many of them related to the alcohol abuse that is rampant in his community. Originally published in 2007, the book has made ALA’s list of Top 10 Challenged Books every year since 2010, being challenged for everything from offensive language to drug use to sexual content to racism. Alexie’s raw honesty about race issues and teen behaviour has consistently proven to be too much for censors to bear.
Even after Junior combats some of the more overt racism at his new school, he still has to cope with the isolation that comes from being rejected by both his classmates and the members of his tribe who feel that he has betrayed them by going to the white school. As much as the rejection of his tribe hurts, Junior also has to come to terms with that fact that he isn’t really the underdog. When he joins the Reardan basketball team and faces off against his former classmates from Wellpinit, the prospect of victory is soured by the knowledge that many of the kids playing on the reservation’s team probably didn’t eat breakfast that morning. Alexie doesn’t pull punches or state things in delicate terms, but his story is full of keen insight and reflection nevertheless. His observations are counterpointed by Ellen Forney’s incisive illustrations, which sometimes cut to the heart of the matter better than words themselves.
If this book has a drawback, it is that so much happens to Junior in the period of one short school year. Sherman Alexie is trying to cover a huge number of issues in book that is well under three hundred pages long. Inevitably, some of the events do not get much attention, and plot threads are only partially resolved. Then again, life doesn’t play fair and spread tragedy out evenly, either.
You might also like The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King.