Originally published on May 28, 2012.
The book is the story of 14-year-old Arnold Spirit Jr., a Spokane Indian living on a reservation. Arnold (aka Junior) has had a hard life ever since he was born with "water on the brain," otherwise known as brain damage. He had surgery as an infant and has been left with all kinds of problems, including a lisp, a stutter, unbalanced glasses, 10 extra teeth, and a huge head. He has been picked on and beaten up by other Indians for his entire life, but he has always been able to count on his best friend Rowdy to defend him.
But on the first day of his freshman year, he is given a textbook that is over 30 years old... and he becomes overwhelmed by the extreme poverty and intense lack of hope suffered by his entire tribe. He acts out against his white teacher, who reacts with more grace and compassion than he ever could have hoped for. His teacher urges him to seek a better life and tells him, "Son, you're going to find more and more hope the farther and farther you walk away from this sad, sad, sad reservation."
So Arnold becomes the first member of his tribe to enroll in the public school in the "white" town, Reardon, 22 miles away. The other Indians are angry with him for "leaving the rez." They view him as a traitor and treat him terribly. And in Reardon, he experiences alienation and racist attitudes. And just getting to school and back every day is a struggle, since his parents often can't afford gas money, so he's often left either hitchhiking or walking the 22 miles. All of this just to get an education.
This book is simply written, and I burned through it in about a day. It's honest and raw, sometimes uncomfortably so. It's terribly sad, illustrating the Indians' lives of poverty, alcoholism, suffering, and most of all, hopelessness. The book was a punch to the gut in a lot of ways, especially in making me realize that I have pretty much never contemplated the plight of modern Native Americans. Yet through all of the sad, sad things that happen to him, somehow Arnold keeps his humor intact, and as a reader, I was left with the hope that somehow, the terrible situation on the rez could improve, one person at a time.
I can't necessarily say that I "liked" this book, because it was both so sad and so real that I feel like that would be downplaying the actual situations that many modern Native Americans face. But I can say that I am really glad that I read it, and I would definitely recommend it to anyone.