by Sherman Alexie
I read Alexie’s short story collection The Toughest Indian in the World a few years ago and really liked it. Then I read Flight, a novel that should not have worked, but was nevertheless brilliant. So when I heard Alexie had won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, I was curious.
It isn’t that I didn’t think he could pull it off (though skilled writers can’t necessarily do it: consider Winterson’s Tanglewreck), but I did wonder what it meant that it was a young adult book.
Aside from creating a compelling story – which this absolutely is, full of awkwardness and pain as it seems only teen years can be – Alexie has created a real gift with this book. He is teaching struggling younger readers about hope, and how you have to pursue it. He is teaching them about the power of books, and how can you find that power anywhere, even in tiny unexpected places.
He manages to do this while having his main character get the crap beaten out of him, play basketball, and try and survive his freshman year of high school. He draws comics to make sense of his world (and yes, we get to see them). Arnold Spirit – Junior – he’s that kind of geek. He’s a sensitive kid. He cries easily. He throws up before the basketball games he plays in. And since he’s a poor Indian kid living on the rez, of course he falls for a beautiful white girl who seems to have everything. He has to make impossible decisions. Things generally do not go well for this kid, in fact they go heartbreakingly not well. And yet.
The magic and gift of the story is in the and yet. It isn’t cheesy – Alexie earns everything – it’s funny. His characters, teenagers mostly, impart some real wisdom:
“But you should approach each book — you should approach life — with the real possibility that you might get a metaphorical boner at any point.”
Alexie is a genius. He’s also prolific, and I fully intend to read everything else of his I can get my hands on. He consistently writes stories that make you cry yet give you hope.