Arnold Spirit, Jr. is a fourteen year old Spokane Indian (Native American) who has grown up on the reservation. He was born with water on the brain which led to some physical problems (his head is overly large and he averages 2 seizures a week) and there's talk about brain damage but he's actually one of the smartest people on the reservation. Because he's small and has some disabilities, he's an easy target not only for kids but for adults. The first chapter is called the "black eye of the month club" because he gets beaten up at least once a month. The only reason he's not beaten more often is because his only friend is a tough fighter that no one likes to take on.
He genuinely loves learning, particularly math. On his first day of high school he opens up his math book and realizes he's using the same book his mother used which means it's over 30 years old. Enraged, he throws his math book and accidentally hits his teacher and breaks his nose.
While serving his suspension his teacher tracks him down and tells him that it's good he's still fighting. Junior is the second smartest kid he's ever taught, only Junior's sister was smarter. But while she excelled in school and seemed to be going places, after high school she locked herself in the basement and rarely comes out. His teacher tells him if he wants to avoid a similar fate, he needs to leave the rez. Because the rez beats a person down and breaks their spirit and what Junior needs is hope.
Junior decides to attend a high school off the rez in a small, predominantly white (and racist) town because he believes white people have the most hope.
The rest of the book is about Arnold/Junior trying to find a place for himself in both his new high school and his home on the rez.
Alexie does a great job giving the reader a feel for the extreme poverty Junior lives in. Near the beginning of the book there's a story about how when his dog was really sick they couldn't afford a vet so his Dad takes the dog outside and shoots him to put him out of his misery. Bullets are only $.02 and everybody can afford those.
It's uncertain how Junior will get too and from school which is 22 miles away. He can usually get a ride to school, although sometimes he has to hitchhike because there's no gas money for the car or the car is broken down. He gets home the same way but sometimes he can't hitch so he has to walk the entire 22 miles.
There's a lot of talk about alcohol and alcohol related violence, but most of the actual violence happens off screen, as it were. His father is an alcoholic, but he disappears when he goes on a drinking binge, he doesn't become violent.
One of the most telling sections talks about the differences between Indian kids and white kids. White kids have probably gone to a few funerals by the time they're 14, they may have had grandparents die for example. At 14 Junior has attended over 40 funerals, most having to do with alcohol related deaths.
It's a really fascinating book and I think it gives a good picture of what it's like to grow up as a racial minority in poverty. There's lots to think about.