Written By Sherman Alexie
An Uncommon Book Review
Do you know what it means to be free? To break out of a cell even if the cell is the size of an Indian reservation with tall trees and land that stretches past hot mountains and a mysterious Turtle Lake that has the power to swallow up Stupid Horse? Do you know what it means to run away from home, but not because you’re scared, but because you’re looking for some semblance of hope? Well, Arnold Spirit knows— he knows exactly what it means. Arnold Spirit, aka Junior was born running and fighting because he’s different. Born with a brain disorder, Arnold was left with a lisp and dark rimmed glasses and bad luck winning anything. If it weren’t for his best friend Rowdy, the toughest boy on the rez, he’d probably be left for dead on the side of some dusty reservation road by now. Instead, Arnold almost breaks his math teacher’s nose with a text book which ends up being the one act of defiance that saves him from his doomed fate. Instead of a punishment, the teacher offers Arnold a confession that changes everything. Imagine your ticket to freedom being buried in one simple truth?
If you think life can be hard and being a teenager confusing, take a look at Arnold Spirit’s world. His world is called the rez— a beautiful but very sad place set aside by the government to quarantine the Indians. It’s on the rez where Junior’s alcoholic father shuts himself up in a room and his sister is called Mary Runs Away because she won’t leave the basement. It’s on the rez where being a member of the tribe means you have to fight to the pulp, drink too much and get used to being pushed around just for being Indian. And contrary to what some folks believe, Indians living on the rez are dirt poor. Many of them live in broken down trailers that look like TV dinners and drive old cars. So, when Arnold thinks about freedom, he’s thinking about surviving. Luckily he isn’t afraid to ask why and he dreams life into his world by drawing funny cartoons—pics you’ll love just as much as his best friend Rowdy does because they’re really cool, clever even! His cartoons are a masterful glimpse into his world, his part-time Indian, part-time basketball extraordinaire, part-time geek world.
Let me say this: this not a depressing story. It’s sad at times, yes and you might even think—really, they live like that? No way! But, it’s really a story about winning. It’s about getting to intimately know the song of the underdog and cheering him on every step of the way. It’s the inside story on how this one lone Indian leaves the messed up world of the Indian reservation to find a whole new kind of mixed-up world outside—the world of an all-white, all American high school. You see, that’s what the math teacher told him, he told him to leave the reservation and find hope.
This book will get you thinking about how saying goodbye and fear mixes in with poverty and how pain and a history of untimely death changes the meaning of things. It will get you worked up about how some Indian dude can fall in love with a pretty white girl, make it on the basketball team and vomit in the toilet cause he’s got not money. It’ll throw you for a loop and get deep, talk to you about what it means to be an Indian surviving a legacy of alcoholism. In fact, this diary will probably make you question everything you’ve been taught about love, family and friendship and what’s really important in life but mostly— it will make you to laugh out loud. It’s that simple, reading Arnold Spirit’s absolutely true diary is like listening to one guy’s real-life, no joke secrets about surviving.
A Litte Bit about Arnold Spirit, aka Junior (The Protagonist)
Let me tell you right off the bat that I want to be Arnold’s friend, or in the very least get a chance to see his comics, because the guy is funny and honest and weird and really, someone who thinks about what’s really important in life. Of course, I’ve always liked smart outsider types with a talent for drawing and telling a good story. Funny how Arnold is also an awesome basketball player. I really wouldn’t have guessed that since he described himself in the book as kind of dorky with big feet and crooked eye glasses, a lisp and prone to seizures. How that turns out to be a star varsity player is a contradiction, sort of. But you believe it’s possible because Arnold does a lot of growing up in the book, he just grows into himself with each turning page and he has this amazingly funny voice that kind of brings you along for a good ride.
At the all-white high school, Arnold introduces himself as Junior and says everybody on the rez (short for reservation) is called Junior. I was glad to learn his name was really Arnold Spirit, because this guy is so different than the typical “Junior” and even different compared to most of the male teenagers I’ve read about. First, he has this uncanny way of making you laugh, cry and puke at the same time. How is that possible? Like for example when he finds out his sister is dead. The guidance counselor at the school, who he describes as a fit type who’s old but still works out, hugs him and he can’t help thinking how turned on he is. I mean, can you imagine? His sister, Mary Runs Away, gets burned up in her trailer started after a night of drunken debauchery—and Arnold, hugging the woman thinks like a weirdo teenager hot for an older woman. The truth is, Arnold is just super honest and is as close as you get to life. That’s right, he’s a real-life kind of guy that doesn’t worry about saying it like it is. And he’s so innocent about it which makes you wonder—does he really know how brilliant he is?
He’s more sensitive than a lot of guys because he cries a lot and talks a great deal about how much he loves his best friend and he even doodles for him, too. He says, “I draw cartoons to make him happy, to give him other worlds to live inside.” That’s sensitive and deep. But, you learn that Arnold cares deeply about everybody, even his sorry old math teacher who’s riddled with guilt but who Arnold understands is really just as lonely as the Indians. He’s sensitive and romantic about love and friendship in a way that probably made him a target for getting beaten up all the time, but regardless, there is no doubt that Arnold Spirit is confident about his masculinity. He gets silly and stupid about girls, confesses he reads playboy magazines and a good part of his diary is dedicated to how he feels about Penelope, the white girl he meets at Reardan High School. Come to think of it, Arnold never really stops talking about girls and his burgeoning sexuality. At one point, after his best friend calls him a faggot (playfully) Arnold shirks it off in a mature and balanced way by making reference to the fact that Indians have a history of being open and tolerant. That’s Arnold too. He teaches you something about culture without even thinking, like how the Indians thought gays were divine in some way.
Overall, I’d say Arnold is an outsider but he’s comfortable in his own skin and doesn’t shy away from talking about the not-so-neat, strange and sometimes confusing grey areas life has to offer.
Highly recommended read for YA literature, Grade 9+ for critical literacy, culture, class, poverty & the Native American experience…and all else, for every teenager.