Monday, September 8, 2014

#46 [2014/CBR6] "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" by Sherman Alexie

"'I used to think the world was broken down by tribes,' I said. 'By black and white. By Indian and white. But I know that isn't true. The world is only broken into two tribes: The people who are assholes and the people who are not.'" (176)

I have begun working my way through "25 YA Novels Everyone--Even Adults--Should Read"--a list I discovered on the internet. Numbers one and two are the Harry Potter and Golden Compass series, so I decided it was legit--even if the first entry on the list is seven books long. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007) by Sherman Alexie, with illustrations by Ellen Forney, is also on this list. A winner of a 2007 National Book Award, I hadn't heard of it before. However, I think the title reminded me of The Indian in the Cupboard--a book that I loved as a kid, but one that I won't be re-reading. I'm afraid it might not stand up to my more critical and grown-up self.

Okay, back on topic. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a semi-autobiographical story about Arnold Spirit, aka Junior, a Spokane Indian living on "the rez" in Wellpinit, Washington. Junior has always been an outsider in a hostile world. Born with water on the brain, he's got a big head, thick glasses, and a stutter--attributes that are always helpful when going through adolescence. He gets beat up regularly and struggles with the poverty and alcoholism surrounding him. But he is lucky enough to be smart, courageous and optimistic. At the prompting of a teacher, and looking for hope, Junior transfers from his reservation school to the relatively rich, all-white school over twenty miles away. A curiosity and stranger at his new school, and even more of an outcast and pariah for "leaving the rez" when he comes home, Alexie follows Junior's first year at his new high school.

The language and simplicity of the story, as well as the main character, put this book in the young adult category, but I still found it incredibly moving without being overly melodramatic. This book would be great for teenagers to read and discuss. Alexie doesn't shy away from how racism has affected him and his tribe, the hopelessness of poverty, and the helplessness of addiction. Yet positive themes of inclusiveness, tolerance, and understanding also run through this novel. In addition, the cartoon illustrations by Ellen Forney work perfectly with the character of Junior, adding to our understanding of him and his situation.

At the end of my version of the book there are some book group questions, an interview with the illustrator, and an interview with the author, all of which were worth reading. In his interview, Sherman Alexie stated that Junior was based off of him, but he made Junior smarter and kinder than himself. I was not too surprised, and was perhaps glad to hear, that this novel was based on reality. The narrative felt so personal and real, I think I would have been disappointed if it was unrealistic or exaggerated for the drama.

I would recommend this book to anyone. It's one of those novels that you fly through, but then it sticks with you much longer than you'd expect.

"I shrank back into my chair and remembered when I used to be a human being." (86)

"The world, even the smallest parts of it, is filled with things you don't know." (97)

"There are all kinds of addicts, I guess. We all have pain. And we all look for ways to make the pain go away."  (107)

"If you let people into your life a little bit, they can be pretty damn amazing." (129)

"Just as I would always love and miss my reservation and my tribe. I hoped and prayed that they would someday forgive me for leaving them. I hoped and prayed that I would someday forgive myself for leaving them." (230)

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