Junior is a Native American kid living on a reservation. His best friend for many years is named Rowdy. Junior is getting fed up with the limitations of living on the ‘rez.’ When his teacher, Mr. P, suggests that he transfer to Reardan High School, a white school outside of the rez, Junior believes he has to do it or be doomed to living miserably on the rez forever. At Reardon he makes friends with a beautiful girl named Penelope, but also has to deal with some racism. Perhaps worse, his fellow Native Americans look at him like a traitor. When Junior, or Arnold as he is known at Reardon, tries out for the basketball team and has to play against his old school, he is shocked by how much the Native American crowd seems to hate him. Arnold must try to manage two very different lives: one on the rez and the other with the white kids. During this time, he faces deaths in his family, an uncertain relationship with Penelope, and cruelty from those he has known his whole life.
Alexie is absolutely hilarious in his treatment of subjects that can be quite controversial. In this way, he manages to keep the tone of the book lighter but moving as well. The issues he describes and the language he uses can be rather heavy and strong, so this story may not be appropriate for young people under a certain age or without a certain level of maturity. Alexie points out many of the problems Native Americans face, such as alcoholism, poverty, and the inability to move up in society. Junior must face issues that many young people of ethnicity face regarding “passing” when with members of the dominant culture. He struggles to maintain some sense of Indian identity despite the fact that he often feels that there is little of which to be proud. Ultimately, he learns that he is able to be himself at Reardon, and that his white friends will accept him for who he is.
This is probably the only book that has ever made me laugh out loud. I believe this is a new modern classic, and like most modern classics, is susceptible to possible censorship. Personally, I felt like Alexie only helped this book by being brutally honest and shocking in his humor; the subject requires honesty, otherwise the audience that matters most – young readers – will not take it seriously. Despite its sometimes crude humor and language, the story is overall quite uplifting and sensitive. I believe that, especially in these harsh economic times, the issue of poverty in this book is extremely important for readers who need someone with whom they can relate.