This semi-autobiographical, coming-of-age book by Sherman Alexie is published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Hachette Book Group and is written for kids 13 and up. The age range reflects readability and not necessarily content appropriateness.
Arnold "Junior" Spirit is a Native-American teen living on the Spokane reservation as his family has for generations. Although Junior was born with hydrocephalus, which means that he was born with excess cerebrospinal fluid, and other health problems, he is intelligent and artistic. One of his teachers urges him to leave the rez, his term for the reservation, and make a better life for himself. Junior decides to transfer to the "white" school in a nearby city where he makes friends and becomes a basketball star. Junior's narrative chronicles his highs and lows as he toggles between white and Indian cultures and the racism found in both.
Junior looks down on white Christians who come to work at the reservation and blames them for destroying the tolerant nature of the Native-American people. After his grandmother's death, Junior is so angry that he draws mocking pictures of Jesus and says he wants to kill God. Later, he prays nervously to God for his dad, who is caught in a storm and late picking him up. On her deathbed, Junior's grandmother asks her family to find forgiveness for the drunk driver who hit her. In talking about his hunger and lack of meals, Junior says a good piece of chicken can make a person believe in the existence of God.
Junior describes his parents as people who did the best they knew how to do, considering from where they came. They're alcoholics, like most of the Indians on Junior's reservation, but he says they don't yell at him or ignore him. They support and are proud of him, whether in his sports or efforts to make his life better. Junior's friend Rowdy has a dad who frequently beats Rowdy and his mom in his drunken rages. Mr. P, a teacher who urges Junior to leave the reservation, apologizes for the way he tried to ignore the Native-American culture in the past. Junior says that many of the kids at Reardan (the "white" school) have parents who ignore and avoid their children.
Other Belief Systems
Junior says homosexual people were seen as magical by Indians of old because they possessed both the male aspect of being a warrior and the female component of being a caregiver.
In addition to taking God's name in vain a number of times, there are multiple uses of the following words: b--tard, a--/a--hole, h---, crap, balls, boner, nuts, s---, d--kwad, p---y, f-g, f---, d--n, fricking, p---ed, j--k off. Alcohol is behind an accident that kills an older woman; someone is shot; drunks fight; there is child abuse, spouse abuse and suicide.
Junior's conversations and narrative are laden with sexual discussions and insinuations. For example, he thanks God for his thumbs, saying that if God didn't want people to masturbate, he wouldn't have given them thumbs. He lusts after his friend Penelope and gets an erection when a teacher hugs him. His friend Gordy tells him a good book should be sexually arousing. Junior's dad makes a sexual joke about his mother, and Penelope's father tells Junior to keep his "trouser snake" in his pants. Junior praises his grandmother's tolerance of homosexuality.
National Book Award Winner in "Young People's Literature," 2007; School Library Journal's list of best books, 2007.
If your children have read this book or someone has read it to them, consider these discussion topics:
- What does Junior blame for the majority of problems and deaths on the rez (reservation)?
Who in Junior's family was killed because of alcohol?
How does Junior think he will die?
Why does Junior choose to never take a drink?
- Where did Junior's sister get her clothes?
What did Junior think about shoplifting or stealing?
Why do you agree or disagree with him?
- Penelope is bulimic and justifies it, saying anorexics are always anorexic, but she is only bulimic when she throws up.
What isn't logical about her argument?
- Why was Mr. P so adamant about Junior leaving the reservation?
What did he think Junior had that no one else on the rez did?
- Why do you think non-Indians living nearby, and even teachers on the rez such as Mr. P, felt so much prejudice toward the Indians?
Do you see prejudice around you in your school?
Which groups of people get picked on, and which people do the bullying?
- Why was Rowdy so opposed to Junior going to a new school?
How have you reacted when you saw one of your friends succeeding at something you didn't think you could accomplish?
What does jealousy ruin?
- Why do you think fighting was such a big part of the culture Junior grew up in?
- Junior's life changed when someone encouraged him to hope.
How can you be a person who helps bring hope to others?
Alcoholism and drunk driving are major issues for discussion in this book. Nearly every adult Junior knows is a drunk, and he says he's been to numerous funerals where people have died due to alcohol in one form or another. Chewing tobacco and illegal drugs are also in this story.
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