The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
Although I’d only heard great things about this book, I hesitated to read it because I have been let down by the author before. It was as though he wanted the reader to understand that he was an American Indian and then said, “And you can’t possibly get what that means, so shove off.” Pretty depressing.
Fortunately, Alexie’s first ‘young adult’ novel is a different experience all together.
“The Absolutely True Diary” is a fictional account of the life of a fourteen-year-old Spokane Indian, Arnold Spirit (Junior). He has a lot working against him—he was born with water on his brain (hydrocephalic) and is bullied by his peers. His father’s an alcoholic (but only when he’s drunk!) and Junior is getting a lousy education on the reservation (rez). In order to change his luck, Arnold decides to go to the ‘white’ school in Reardon, Washington, 22 miles from the rez. Happily, he makes friends and becomes one of the school’s basketball stars. But his friends on the rez call him an ‘apple’ for being red on the outside, but white on the inside. So the one constant question of teen life—Who am I?—has multiple meaning in Junior’s life.
The Indians in this novel are neither the stereotype of savage nor noble nature guide/shaman. Junior knows a lot of people with a lot of problems—especially alcoholism. Yet the book is wildly funny, and we laugh out loud as we root for Junior to make it in life. One of the reasons we do so is the cartoons by Ellen Forney that are interspersed throughout the book. Ostensibly, they are Arnold’s cartoons and drawing, as he is a budding artist. These comics can be read as a stand-alone story. One of my favorites was “Junior Gets to School,” with five panels, showing what happens to him Monday-Friday as he tries to make his 22 mile trip. Another non sequitur that is hilarious is “THE UNOFFICIAL and UNWRITTEN (but you better follow them or you’re going to get beaten twice as hard) SPOKANE INDIAN RULES OF FISTICUFFS.” It’s easy to see why life is so hard for Arnold.
“The Absolutely True Diary” won the National Book Award and was a Junior Library Guild pick. Reading it gives you a chance to think about the difficulties encountered in getting out of tough situations–and yet it’s still uplifting. And funny, funny, funny at the same time. I HIGHLY RECOMMEND this one!