I believe this is the first book labelled as “Young Adult” I have ever read – when I was a kid, when I was a young adult, now. It’s not that when I was younger I read lots of “grownup” books – it’s more that I didn’t read. It’s also not that I have anything against them now, it just hadn’t happened yet. 40 seems like as a good year as any to break that streak.
I read this because two of my classes wanted to read it. Actually, two of my classes wanted to re-read it. A good number of them read it when they were freshmen. Which is interesting in itself – when given a choice among books to read in this unit (since it’s a unit about Native American literature, our Book Distribution Center owns three titles, two by Serman Alexie, so not really much of a choice), they picked this. Some teachers react with cynicism – like the kids are just trying to get out of work. I see it differently: this is a text they are comfortable with, one they are willing to learn more from. And since the kid I spend the most time with right now is 3, I know that “re-reading” is sort of the point. I have literally read Green Eggs and Ham nearly one hundred times. Sam doesn’t like it any less time #47 that #1 – in fact, he probably likes it much more now. And to be more “grownup” again, when I go to church, it’s not like I tune out during the Bible readings because they come back every few years. Again, in a different way, that’s sort of the point.
Usually when I read books because someone else wants me to, I experience it as a huge burden. That didn’t happen here. For the first few pages, I felt that tug, that “oh god why am I doing this it’s a YA book I don’t read YA books but it’s for work just go ahead,” but by the time I even realized I was feeling that way, I was laughing pretty hard, already drawn in. The voice of Junior, the book’s narrator and protagonist, struck me as every bit as original and authentic as Holden Caulfield’s in The Catcher in the Rye, if not more so. Today, when we read the first two chapters aloud in class, the kids were laughing at the same places I had been a few days ago.
The humor works for reasons it’s probably not worth it to parse, at the risk of destroying the jokes. But something else I noticed is that Junior has a way of embedding pretty deep observations about race, class, gender and sexuality into his jokes, in a way that both felt realistic as the experiences of a high school student, and also felt like trenchant social critique offered on the part of its adult author, Sherman Alexie himself.
Actually, one of the most poignant moments, for me anyway, was more about childhood friendship and heteronormativity. Near the end of the book, we get an extended flashback about Junior and Rowdy spending a day climbing trees. Under an illustration of two boys holding hands it says, quite simply, and without guile, “boys are allowed to hold hands until they are 9 or 10.” That made me sad for my son – who daily holds my hand. I know part of that is about growing up, but part of it is also about he and I both being male. And that sucks for what it represents, for that part of him (and me) it extinguishes, forces into hiding, muffles.
As we started discussing the book in class today, students were already making connections between their own experiences with race and racism, with other texts we had read, starting to draw large synthetic conclusions about their identities, systems of oppression and their interaction between the two. I don’t know if they did that the first time they read this book, but I do know anything that helps those acts of synthesis is good.
As a former colleague of mine put it, in answering the charge that this book was “too easy”: we have to ask, to easy in what way? Perhaps the syntax and the diction are simple (though even that is deceptive). The ideas, the aspects of identity this book asks us to confront, especially regarding the vital but seemingly silent/absent place Native Americans hold in the American collective unconscious–those are pretty far from “too easy.”