Tuesday, June 9, 2015
Within the first couple pages of Sherman Alexie's novel he's used the word "retard" twice. There's a dark sense of humor there, as a boy with "water on the brain" describes his looks, and his stutter and lisp, followed by a really unflattering picture of himself, and calling himself a retard. This is based on Alexie's own life story, and much that happens in the book is semi-autobiographical. That said the ableist language even in describing himself is probably unneeded. He doesn't seem to have a very high opinion of his former looks, lisp, etc. and seems to take the same tack on it as the kids who made fun of him.
I wanted to like this book. There's a lot of depth in it, and moving scenes. Moments where I felt the true poverty Alexie, and Junior in the book grew up in. As Alexie says in the book, "Poverty doesn't give you strength or teach you lessons about perseverance. No, poverty only teaches you how to be poor." This is a powerful truth. I think Alexie's book is best when it's representing the reality of growing up on a reservation and the almost weary anger Native Americans have towards white people who built "death camps" for them, and left them to rot. He's also pretty hard on his own people though, and I don't know if he's correct...he points out the rampant alchoholism, and the being prone to fight everyone. I had thought these were just stereotypes.
I am not sure if there is some small internalized racism in Alexie. But I don't want to say that, and there are plenty of loving compassionate beautiful moments as he describes Native American culture to take his own frustrations with it in balance.
At first too the book seems to become more and more of a "whites are better than native americans" book, and I don't know how I felt about that either. He's treated better by white people, given more opportunities, believed in more, etc. The only ones that still support him from the reservation are his immediate family, and a close family friend. This is probably based on Alexie's real life, but there is throughout the book almost this sense of "white flight" from the reservation. It is less about helping the community he's grown up in, and more of the fact that he sees no hope there so he needs to leave.
So he does.
While issues of racism are dealt with in pretty good manner, there is little to no intersectionality in other ways of marginalization. In one part Junior is praising his grandmother's "tolerance" of gay people, and speaking of the ancient Indian belief that gay people, being male and female (yes it actually says that), are magical. He talks of how men were seen as providers and and warriors, and women as nurturers, and thus gay people were magical cause they were warrior nurturers. So a little patriarchal too. But later in the novel he and his best friend are jokingly calling each other f*ggot and laughing about it, cause I guess all cishet boys are little bit homophobic growing up...?
Perhaps the worst treatment is of women in the novel. While Junior is respectful and deeply admiring of his mother and grandmother and sister, he seems to have a very messed up view of all the other women in the novel. He describes two women as "older but still hot." and has one very awkward scene with a fifty year old guidance counselor he still thinks is "hot", where he can't even be hugged by her as she tries to comfort him over the death of his sister without getting an erection.
In fact Junior is incapable of seeing women other than his family members as anything but sexual. Everything his girlfriend does from puking because of being bulimic to weeping for him over his losses as "sexy", and he takes a very casual view of their relationship. There is even a section later on when his best friend makes fun of him for mentioning loving some trees and calls him a "tree f*g" wherein Junior replies "I only stick it in girl trees."
I don't mind the mentioning of masturbation, that probably needs to be destigmatized in literature, but the ongoing trope of young boys being horndogs while probably true to real life shouldn't continue to be a celebrated aspect of boyhood, and Alexie takes the trope to new and uncomfortable heights in just about every way.
As a book written for young teens, I think it's not really that good a book to be read by them. I would be more inclined to have it read in a class or book group where it could be read critically. There are aspects to it that I think are important, but there are other aspects I think should be questioned at best.
Overall my take on this book is very mixed. I don't think I liked it, though I do respect parts of it. I won't be recommending it to anyone though.
I don't think it should be banned though.