Saturday, February 19, 2011

Book Review: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

When I was younger, I thought that becoming a high school English teacher would be a practical application of my love of books and Literature-degree-in-progress. That brilliant idea survived all of three weeks into the intro to education class that my alma mater required all potential teachers to take, in which I learned all about banned books and curriculum battles, and how I would be having to go to bat for literary classics like Huck Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird because frank language and accurate depictions of racial issues make affluent white people (who evidently exist in a profound state of denial wherein their teenaged children do not curse, do drugs, drink, or even think about having sex) uncomfortable. No thanks, said I.

And then I spent the next several years waiting tables.

My impressive moral victories aside, I had been meaning to read Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian ever since it came out. I'd never read his works before, but he came highly recommended by my friends who didn't like Twilight and the subject matter resonated with me. Growing up, I often felt like a Part-Time Indian. When I visited my dad and grandparents, I would often travel with my grandfather down to the Cherokee reservation because that's where he got his medical treatment. Sometimes we'd stop off at Oconaluftee Village and visit the museum or watch the dancers (we would also go to Santa Land), and he would tell me old stories from his people. I loved my Papaw dearly and was proud to be his granddaughter, but I never knew what to say when I would go back home to Knoxville and hear people make ignorant comments about Indians.

I look white enough to where people feel comfortable letting their ugliest opinions out, not realizing that I was one of those alcoholic, casino-owning injuns what was out to cheat white folks out of their hard-earned money, because we all know that Indians are really raking it in from those casinos, that they hold guns to white peoples' heads and force them to gamble there, and, of course, that the white people don't have it coming in the first place. Sometimes I would speak up and inform people that they were being ignorant, but others, I didn't have the time and energy to bother people who were that intentionally ignorant. Especially since, as I got older, those conversations inevitably devolved into the other person ranting idiotic about affirmative action and accusing me of taking their spots in the universities and jobs. Stupid.

Alexie's protagonist, Arnold Spirit (aka Junior), is a fourteen-year-old Spokane Indian who has lived on the reservation his entire life. Born with hydroencephalus and prone to seizures, he is everyone's favorite punching bag. He only has one friend: a bigger boy named Rowdy who protects him from some of the rez's meaner denizens. Arnold's frustrations with the crappiness of reservation life build throughout the first couple of chapters. He is sick of getting beaten up by thirty-year-old men. He is tired of never having enough food to eat. He is depressed by the fact that nearly every adult in his life is a raging alcoholic. Finally, he is infuriated at watching smart, high achieving people like his mother and older sister succumb to the rez's alcoholic malaise. His rage builds until the first day of school, when he discovers that he has been assigned his mother's (who hadn't been in school in thirty years) old math book. At that moment, he breaks, and throws the book across the room, unintentionally hitting his teacher, Mr. P in the face. He is suspended.

Several days later, Mr. P shows up at Junior's house. Rather than yell at him or punish him, the teacher apologizes to Junior for the way that he has treated Indian students in the past, and begs him to switch schools and make something of himself. Junior decides to transfer to Reardan, an all-white school twenty-two miles away. This decision costs him his friendship with Rowdy and causes his relationship with other tribe members to become even more hostile. They call him a traitor and an apple (red on the outside, white on the inside), and shun him. The book chronicles Junior's adjustment at his new school and the evolution of his relationships with his white and Indian friends, as well as his family.

I enjoyed this book for a number of reasons. Junior is a frank, believable character: he swears, makes fart jokes, and waxes poetic about the sex he isn't having-- in short, he acts like a typical fourteen-year-old boy. Sometimes crude, always astute, he is an entertaining and compelling narrator. Through him, Alexie shows the reader precisely how much like sucks on the reservations along with the strong familial and community bonds it fosters. Junior's conflict over leaving the only life he's ever known is heartbreaking, and leaves the reader outraged that things are so bad that he has to choose between his family and community and the possibility of a decent life. While it wasn't exactly eye-opening for me, I imagine it would have a profound effect on students who are unaware of the realities of life on the reservation, much like To Kill a Mockingbird gave me a cold, hard reality check about how bad things can be down here in the South.

I guess it goes without saying that The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian hasn't gone over well with concerned parents' groups. It does hit the Banned Teen Books Trifecta by containing:

  1. Teenagers who act like teenagers and do things like drink, curse, drugs, have sex, think about having sex, get into fights, etc. etc.
  2. Racial commentary that isn't warm and fuzzy.
  3. A narrative that does not conform to the Great American Dream of pulling oneself up by one's bootstraps.
This is probably why it's so gritty and real; even though it's fiction, it tells the truth. I give it five out of five stars.

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