Sherman treats his characters with respect and love, yet is gently honest about their shortcomings. His description of life on the reservation is painful, and funny. The self-deprecating nature of the protagonist, Arnold, AKA “Junior,” makes his character very likable. His description of his fellow residents of the reservation also reflects some of the known issues for native peoples in many parts of our country.
He says that the worst thing about being poor is the inability to help those you love. He talks about his best friend, Oscar the dog, becoming critically ill. His parents cannot take him to the vet, because they don’t have the money to. He hates the powerlessness that comes from not being able to affect a change in your circumstances.
“…I can’t blame my parents for our poverty…it’s not like my mother and father were born into wealth. It’s not like they gambled away their family fortunes. My parents came from poor people who came from poor people who came from poor people, all the way back to the very first poor people.”
He discovers that his textbooks are older than he is, and becomes angry that the opportunities on the rez aren’t anywhere near those elsewhere. His teacher convinces him that if he doesn’t get away from the limitations of the rez his life will be no different than that of generations of Spokane Indians. So he decides to go to the public school in the town nearby that is all white.
Sherman Alexie neither romanticizes nor condemns natives or whites. He reports what life is like for his people, and offers them a chance to look at ways to remain true to their culture yet gain skills that lead to an ability to escape poverty and all the ailments that come with it.
—Lezlie Christian is a high school English teacher and freelance writer in Oklahoma City, OK