(review originally posted on my livejournal account: http://intoyourlungs.livejournal.com/24935.html)
I've been wanting to read this book for years. What initially attracted me to it was the shiny gold "National Book Award" stamp that it had on it, but the more I dug, the more great reviews I found for the book as well. It didn't hurt that I wanted to broaden my POC (people of colour) reading as well.
Overall, the novel didn't disappoint, but it didn't blow my mind either.
One of my hugest misgivings with this book, I think, was my inability to suspend my disbelief. The novel revolves around Junior, a Native American who decides that he wants to go to a high school that's NOT on the reservation he lives on; he decides instead to go to Reardan High, the "white" school, where he is literally the only Native American in attendance. Junior makes this decision in an attempt to break the cycle of poverty and limitation that his family has suffered for generations because of their heritage.
Now, where I have trouble suspending my disbelief is in the kind of life Junior ends up leading at Reardan. Not only is Junior a Native American, but he also has a mild physical handicap; because of some minor brain-damage, he has a slightly larger head and a stutter (though this stutter isn't reflected in his narration, as the novel is presented in a sort of diary format, so he isn't going to write out his own stutter). You'd think that with a mix of being Native American and having these minor physical handicaps that Junior would have a really hard time fitting in at his Caucasian-centric high school. Well, he does a bit at first, but Junior turns his fate around REALLY quick. Before he (or I) knew it, he's dating the most popular girl in school, becomes a star first-string basketball player and gets the respect of one of the most popular senior varsity basketball players. I hate to say it, but teenagers are MEAN PEOPLE, so I found Junior's acceptance at the school to be.. surprising. However, what I *did* like about this development was that it tread a different path than a novel of this type usually takes. Initially, I thought this book would be all about Junior's struggle to fit in, and he wouldn't achieve this until closer to the end of the novel. But Junior finds the most strife with his OWN people, who behave badly towards him because they see him as a traitor, or someone who thinks he's better than they are. So instead of vilifying the white people, which would have been very easy, Alexie creates a lot more gray areas, which IS refreshing, even if it challenged me to suspend my disbelief a little more than I felt comfortable with.
Another thing that irked me a little bit about the book was how short it was. Because of this, most of the characters don't get sufficient character development, such as Penelope, Junior's sort-of girlfriend. She's a girl who has very obvious problems, mainly her bulimia, but this is only brushed upon. Junior catches her throwing up in the washroom once, tells her she doesn't need to do that to be pretty, and then it's never mentioned ever again. I'm not saying that I think Alexie dismisses bulimia as a real problem, but the sub-text of this book gives off that impression a little, and that kind of bothered me. Thankfully other secondary characters, such as Rowdy, get quite a bit more character development, despite being absent for most of the novel.
The last thing that kind of bothered me about the book happened near the end of the novel: THREE people close to Junior die. And this all happens within the last... 50 or so pages of the novel? Considering the book isn't even 300 pages, these deaths all feel like they happen really quickly. I know that Alexie was trying to drive home the fact that being a Native American is hard, and has its problems (such as alcoholism), but this was driving the point home a little too hard. The deaths mostly felt senseless, and having all three of them in such a near succession to one another only accented this, but not in a positive way.
I feel kind of bad pointing all the things I didn't like, because it's making this review seem like I didn't really like the novel, which isn't true. I did like it, I just had some problems with it that I couldn't ignore. Thankfully, the writing wasn't one of those problems. Alexie wrote this book in a diary-format, written by the main character Junior. It's very stream-of-consciousness, and kind of truncated; there are a lot of line breaks. This made it read in either a very clipped and truncated way, but other times it was very long-winded and wordy. I'm surprised this didn't bother me, because most of the time it does, but somehow Alexie made it work. It felt true to Junior's character somehow. Also, Alexie writes from a teenager's mind and actually sounds and feels like a teenager; it never felt forced.
Final Verdict: I had some fairly big misgivings with this book: I had some trouble suspending my disbelief in regards to how well the main character adjusted to his new school, the lack of length of the novel didn't allow for some of the characters to develop as much as I might've liked, and some developments near the end of the novel felt gratuitous and like it drove Alexie's home a little TOO much. However, I didn't like that Alexie didn't follow the typical conventions that a novel like this usually takes (Junior, despite being a Native American, makes friends with his white peers fairly easily and actually has more of hard time with people from his own tribe, which was a significantly different path that I thought this novel would take), which was refreshing. Even though I didn't fall head over heels in love with this book, I would still recommend it to people who want to expand their POC reading, and I can see why this novel has won The National Book Award.