This is a coming of age novel that at one level says if you're an American Indian you'd better get off the reservation if you want to develop to your full potential. At another level it can be read as a book telling young people that with determination and effort they can overcome the limitations of their cultural and economic environment into which they were born. The overall message is a positive one, however, along the way it paints a dreary picture of reservation life. The author is a Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian, and he grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, WA which is the setting for the story in this book. So I presume he knows what he is talking about when he says the following:"Gordy gave me this book by a Russian dude named Tolstoy, who wrote: 'Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.' Well, I hate to argue with a Russian genius, but Tolstoy didn't know Indians. And he didn't know that all Indian families are unhappy for the same exact reasons: the fricking booze."
The story is told in first person by a 14-year-old boy named Arnold Spirit, but he goes by name Junior on the Spokane Indian Reservation where he lives. While serving a period of suspension from the reservation high school for bad behavior on the first day of his freshman year, he is visited by a teacher who tells him he has great potential but there's no way he will achieve it if he stays in the reservation school."If you stay on this rez," Mr. P said, "they're going to kill you. I'm going to kill you. We're all going to kill you. You can't fight us forever."
At that point in the story I assumed that Mr. P was speaking metaphorically about killing Arnold's spirit, but the book goes on to tell of numerous accidental deaths on the reservation so Mr. P may have been talking literally of the prospect of being killed physically. Arnold takes the teacher's advice and begins to attend the rural 'white' high school 22 miles from home where he is the only Indian in the student body. The courage he musters after facing significant challenges is nothing short of marvelous. Though the 'rez' community and his family have their problems, the author describes the community as loving and supportive in many ways in spite of widespread alcoholism and poverty. So the author says plenty of positive things about reservation life and American indian culture. But he doesn't sugar coat the social problems.
The author is a good writer and sprinkles plenty of humor into the story. The characters were engaging and the plot believable. It's a fun book to read, but there is a sobering undercurrent message also. I only hope the book will inspire young people who read the book to cheer up and work hard. According to Booklist’s Ian Chipman, ‘Younger teens looking for the strength to lift themselves out of rough situations would do well to start here’.