I’ll be completely honest with you, this book was pretty spectacularly written. Sherman Alexie wrote with such a strong voice that Junior/Arnold just sprang off the page, a real life human being. As a reader, you’re thrown right into the middle of everything without any explanation. I love when stories do that; with this, it was important. It’s written by a fourteen year old boy, of course it’ll be filled with lots of dialogue, a limited but well used vocabulary, and with a realness that not a lot of books have these days. I’m not sure if this should be considered YA or MG; I’ve seen it placed in both sections of libraries and bookstores. The writing really feels juvenile, but it’s supposed to. As a twenty-something, maybe it was a little bit too juvenile at some points for my taste, but I kept reading because it was such a compelling story I needed to see how Alexie tied it all up in the end.
The illustrations (done by Ellen Forney) added such a touch to this that the novel would have been severely lacking without them. This isn’t Diary of a Wimpy Kid, though at first glance a few pages probably will remind you of that. This is a fourteen year old kid’s “diary” so to speak, with scribbles and intensely soft portraits and everything a fourteen year old kid would draw. Forney drew so perfectly that I felt like of course that’s exactly how Junior’s art would look like. (Ellen Forney has an interview at the end of this book that almost brought me to tears as she describes her process with the photos.)
I had no idea what the plot would be exactly; I hadn’t even read the blurb on the back until I actually picked up the book from the shelf to read. I knew it was going to be rough: Native Americans have gotten the shittiest end of the stick, their lives will never be easy. The plot was very simple if you think about it. Without spoilers, you meet Junior, a fourteen year old Native American living on a reservation with his parents, grandmother and sister. He has a lot of physical handicaps and has brain damage, but he’s smart and he plays basketball. He has a best friend, Rowdy, and that’s about it. You learn quickly that his life is very poverty stricken, and he often goes days without eating.
Junior then decides he’s going to go to high school in the all-white school off the reservation. One of his teachers plants the seed of the idea and he takes it. This is seen poorly from the eyes of his fellow Native Americans and Junior has to deal with not only being seen as a traitor by his family and friends but also deal with the racism of his all-white school. And then the “part-time Indian” from the title comes into place. Junior finds that he doesn’t quite fit in either world fully and he’s two different people when he’s at home or at school.
It’s not a complex story, but the plot moves swiftly and realistically, with teenage angst, the horrors of life, the loss of loved ones, and the interesting way that racism can exist even if you’re friends with the people who are racist and vise versa. There is a heavy, hard-hitting message about alcoholism, which is especially toxic to Native Americans because of the way the chemical compounds mix with their blood. It’s scientifically proven, I believe, that Native Americans are affected more heavily and easily by alcohol than other races. I’ve heard this from the mouths of Natives personally, so I’m just going to say that this is a fact and it plays a really large role in the plot of this story.
Junior was really the driving force of the story, being it’s narrator. He was likable in the sense that he was a kid just wanting to keep living. He reacted to situations the way a fourteen year old boy would react. He got emotionally heavy at times, and he was light and laughable at others. He had to deal with a lot of stuff I couldn’t imagine having to go through at this age and it really struck a chord with me and made me highly aware of my own privilege. I love when books and media and people do that to me; it sets me right again, as a white woman, to get a real sense of the struggles people have just because of the color of their skin and where they were born.
The other characters were fantastic and lively as well: Grandmother Spirit was a joy, Randy and Penelope and Gordy were great additions to the circle of Junior’s friends and, as I’ve said a million times before, they were all so real. Eugene and Junior’s parents were a little less developed, but I still was glad to see a teenage novel where the kid didn’t hate his parents, at least not all of the time, and they were present and flawed.
As stated above, I’m a white woman so I have oodles of privilege. I grew up in the Southwest, where my friend group for the most part consisted of two other white kids, a handful of Mexicans, one quarter-Japanese girl, and one Native American kid who didn’t grow up on a reservation. I spent a lot of time driving past and through reservations, I spent a lot of time inside of their casinos, seeing the nicely dressed fellas in suits with braided hair and turquoise everywhere. I was very apparent of the Native American culture growing up; which was good. I wasn’t blind to the poverty of the bunch, but I never knew for certain because I never saw it with my own two eyes and the Native American friend I did have, like I said, didn’t grow up on a reservation and wasn’t poor. So reading all of things Junior went through, from the lack of money, the way alcohol ruined his life in so many ways, from all of the deaths (he’s fourteen and he’s been to over forty funerals, that is…so burdening and eye opening) to the way he felt like he really was something once he got off of the reservation.
I’m so glad that I read this book, and I’m so glad that it is an #ownvoice book, written by a Native American, who I hope didn’t have to go through all of Junior’s terrible events, but who I trusted to tell the story as authentically as possible. I felt like I could take this story and be like “Okay, this is what happens on these reservations daily, this actually happens” and know that it wasn’t some white person who just decided to try their hand at writing something they know nothing about. (Wow that got a little harsh, but I’m just trying to be honest here.)