I knew before I finished the first chapter of this book that I would not recommend it. Ordinarily when this happens, I finish the book in order to give a thorough, detailed and reasoned evaluation. This time, however, I just could not force myself to continue reading this “award winner”, which appears on many recommended lists. It was that bad.
I was drawn to Alexie’s book because it promised to be a profound “coming of age, persevere against all odds” story about a young Native American with extreme physical disabilities who confronts and overcomes racism. I was sorely disappointed.
I would have overlooked the poor writing style and crass language. The author told his semi-autobiographical tale in the first person, and the protagonist who speaks sounds like a teenage boy so I was not expecting Shakespeare. Just the same, the author’s continual use of hyperbole wore thin quickly. Take, for example, a small portion of Junior’s description of his congenital condition:
“My brain damage left me nearsighted in one eye and farsighted in the other, so my ugly glasses were all lopsided because my eyes were so lopsided.
I get headaches because my eyes are, like, enemies, you know, like they used to be married to each other but now hate each other’s guts.
And I started wearing glasses when I was three, so I ran around the rez looking like a three-year-old Indian grandpa…
And my skull was enormous.
My head was so big that Indian skulls orbited around it. Some of the kids called me Orbit. And other kids just called my Globe.
The bullies would pick me up, spin me in circles, put their finger down on my skull, and say, “I want to go there.”
Not to mention his ten extra teeth and gigantic hands and feet.
This may be the author’s attempt at humor, but it felt to me like a mockery of children who have disabilities and are bullied because of it.
Junior also likes to glorify masturbation. Now, I realize that teenagers are curious about their sexuality. However, this topic, particularly when presented not just as a normal, but as a necessary activity, has no place in a book aimed at pre- and early teens.
Then there were the references to drinking, violence and the like. Again, I had expected to read a realistic account of life on a reservation with its many hardships resulting from prejudice and injustice which would instill sympathy in the reader. Unfortunately Alexie’s description of his fellow Native Americans only portrays them in a poor light – as though not one of his family members has any redeeming qualities.
I decided to cheat and read the last two chapters.
I discovered that this book was a lost opportunity. The conclusion had some powerful lessons about responsibility, family and friendship. But context is important. Given the wealth of children’s literature, young readers could make better use of their time.
A former teacher, Jennifer Minicus is currently a full-time wife and mother.