Monday, March 17, 2008

Diary One Novel That Earns Its Hype

I haven't read a lot of books about Native Americans, so I guess it's not surprising that I've
never come across a narrator quite like Arthur Spirit. "Junior" as he's known on the rez, has all the characteristics of a Class A loser - he stutters, lisps, wears thick glasses, sucks at basketball, and cries a little more than is safe for a 14-year-old boy. He gets beat up. A lot. Luckily for Junior, his best friend is the toughest kid around. Still, life on the rez isn't exactly easy for Junior or anyone else. Yeah, there's a casino nearby, but it's not making money for the common Indian (clarification: Alexie uses the term "Indian" constantly; he never uses "Native American," so I'm going to risk being politically incorrect and follow his lead) who still struggles against poverty, alcoholism, and an inability to get ahead.

So, Junior draws cartoons. He draws because "I feel like it might be my only real chance to escape the reservation. I think the world is a series of broken dams and floods, and my cartoons are tiny little lifeboats" (5). As Junior explains the world to himself, he suddenly realizes that he can better himself. Just because he lives within five miles of where he, his parents, and his grandmother were born, doesn't mean he can't leave. Just because no one else in the tribe has ever done it, doesn't mean he can't. So, Junior begs his parents to let him go to Reardan, the high school in town where all the white farmers' kids - and no Indians - attend. The school is 22 miles away, meaning Junior has to walk when his parents don't have the money to pay for gas, but he's determined to get a good education. His decision brands Junior as an apple (red on the outside, white on the inside), a traitor to his tribe. In fact, it makes him feel like a traitor to himself:

"Traveling between Reardon and Wellpinit, between the little white town and the reservation, I always felt like a stranger. I was half Indian in one place and half white in the other. It was like being an Indian was my job, but it was only a part-time job. And it didn't pay well at all" (118).

Not surprisingly, Junior feels different and alone in the sea (or pond - Reardan's a small town) of white faces. He's surprised by the blatant racism of the town's adults, and the acceptance he eventually wins from their children. His year at Reardon is a time of discovery - he falls in love, proves himself on the basketball court, and discovers that friendship can endure despite great odds.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is an original, honest and engaging story. When I say honest, I mean it - Arnold discusses everything from masturbation to his parents' alcoholism to the irony of Indians celebrating Thanksgiving. The frankness is both disturbing and enlightening. Conversely, the thing I found most interesting about this story is the subtlety of the author's language use. Each sentence seems to have at least five meanings. Take this passage, for instance, in which Junior describes his dad's Christmas "sacrifice":

"Drunk for a week, my father must have really wanted to spend those last five dollars. Shoot, you can buy a bottle of the worst whiskey for five dollars. He could have spent that five bucks and stayed drunk for another day or two. But he saved it for me.

It was a beautiful and ugly thing" (151).

The book is full of such passages, which makes the story so much more meaningful than it appears to be on the surface.

I found the discussion of racism against Indians fascinating. This book is set in Washington State, where I grew up (although I lived in the Western, not Eastern part of the state), and I don't remember this kind of prejudice against Native Americans. Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series, also set in Washington, brings up similar issues. I remember feeling miffed when my Indian buddy Leon got 2 weeks off school for fishing season, but that's the only time I ever had a negative feeling about him (until he grew up and became a small town gang banger, but that's another story ...) or other Indians at our school. I guess I was just shocked that the kind of racism Alexie describes actually happens.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is one book that earns the hype it has generated. It's brilliant, from Junior's voice (authentic, honest) to the cartoons "taped" into his diary (witty), to its statements on Indian culture and prejudice (eye-opening) - it's simply unforgettable.

Grade: A

(Book Image from Sherman Alexie's official website. The book is semi-autobiographical. Check out the "Biography" section of Alexie's site to read more about him.)

6 comments:

  1. This is the second good review I've read of this one, so I will officially add it to my infinite TBR list!

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  2. I've heard of this one before and passed it up, but now I really do want to read it! Thanks for the review.

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  3. This one does sound good. I've read several positive reviews. Have you ever read The Education of Little Tree? It's a great book about a little Native American boy growing up in the mountains during the Great Depression. The book was supposed to be autobiographical, but it was later discovered that the author, Forrest Carter had not lived that life. He was also a terrible racist himself. But, aside from that, the book is excellent. I think many people have written the book off because of the revelations about the author, but it's a shame because it's a really good read.

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  4. Wahoo! I'm glad that you experienced this too! Your review is a knock-out!! I did feel that this book was layered, like the proverbial onion; each sentence could be read in more than one way! You nailed it.

    I also lived in western Washington when I was growing up although my experiences probably weren't the same as yours. I grew up on an island in the Puget Sound for about 3 years. A real great memory-laden time of my life.

    Thanks for sharing your great review. I just thought this book was terrific as well.
    Gaye

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  5. I loved this one, too... mostly because it was honest and funny at the same time. It's not often that you find a book so depressing and so hopeful that it makes you want to cry and laugh and hope the best for the poor kid.

    It also made me curious about Alexie's other books. But that's for another time...

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  6. Wonderful review. I have yet to read this one, but highly recommend his last - Flight. And, if you really want to get into Sherman Alexie's humor and pathos be sure to read Reservation Blues. It's on my top ten list of favorite books ever. tgem

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