Sherman Alexie, "a Spokane Indian boy living with his family on the Spokane Indian Reservation in eastern Washington state," was able to teach himself to read at the age of three. Although his family "lived on a combination of irregular paychecks, hope, fear and government surplus food," his father was a lover of books, and managed to fill the house with books bought at second hand stores and wherever else he could find them. Young Sherman remembers picking up his father's books, and learning to read on his own, partly by using context clues given in comic book pictures. In other circumstances, Sherman "might have been called a prodigy," but as "an Indian boy living on a reservation," he was looked upon as "simply an oddity."
Sherman says that "a smart Indian is...widely feared and ridiculed by Indians and non-Indians alike." Because of his early ability to read, Sherman was tormented by his Indian classmates, who wanted him "to stay quiet when the non-Indian teacher asked for answers." Sherman cites the unspoken expectation that Indian children are stupid, and can only fail in the non-Indian world, as being the basis for the mistreatment he endured at the hands of his peers. The great majority of Sherman's contemporaries bought into this sad attitude, and performed poorly in school, even though they proved themselves to be intelligent in other ways, when among their own people.
Sherman Alexie understood that those Indian children who failed as they were expected to "were ceremonially accepted by other Indians and appropriately pitied by non-Indians." Sherman was different, however; using his early ability to read and learn, he refused to fail. Sherman describes himself as "smart...arrogant...lucky," and continued to read anything he could get his hands on voraciously. Because of this, he was accepted neither by the other Indians nor by the white people when he was growing up.