I love Sherman Alexie! I mean you know I must love him because I tend to stay away from books that deal with real life problems (yeah, I know you’re judging me…lol) but Sherman Alexie does reality and comedy like nobody’s business, plus he’s like freakin’ poetic at the same time. Who can beat that? Previously I’ve reviewed a book of his short stories (which I loved,) but The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is his first foray into young adult fiction. He won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature in 2007 for it. I really can’t sing enough praise, he is simply awesome. Plus this book is illustrated with art by Ellen Forney.
Arnold Spirit, a.k.a Junior is a Spokane Indian learning how to be a regular fourteen year old boy. The problem is he’s going outside the norm, and he has all sorts of complexes. For one, he was born with too much cerebral spinal fluid inside his skull, sometimes he has seizures and his self-esteem is shot. He feels all of this as a burden, but foremost he deals with poverty:
“But we reservation Indians don’t get to realize our dreams. We don’t get those chances. Or choices. We’re just poor.
That’s all we are.
It sucks to be poor, and it sucks to feel that you somehow deserve to be poor. You start believing that you’re poor because you’re stupid and ugly.And then you start believing that you’re stupid and ugly because you’re Indian. And because you’re Indian you start believing you’re destined to be poor. It’s an ugly circle and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Poverty doesn’t give you strength or teach you lessons about perseverance. No, poverty only teaches you how to be poor.”
I love that there’s no romanticizing of being poor, it simply sucks. So one day when opening his geometry book he sees that his textbook had been used by his mother thirty years ago. Junior describes this as the,”saddest thing in the world,” and to add to that everyone in his family has stopped hoping and has given up on their dreams. He realizes with the help of one of his teachers that hope lies outside the reservation and the limitations he feels there.
The Journey: Twenty-two Stinkin’ Miles
When he asks who has the most hope the reply is “white people.” So Junior decides to go to Reardan, the rich school twenty-two miles away from the rez. Reardan is one of the best smaller schools in the state, and he is determined to make a better life for himself even if he ends up walking the twenty-two miles to school (gosh, sometimes I don’t even want to walk five steps to my refrigerator.)
Living two lives: It ain’t easy being called an apple
Junior starts feeling like he is half Indian in one place and half white in the other. The Indians think he’s a traitor whose red on the outside and white on the inside. Some Indians on the rez think you become white if you try to make your life better and become successful. And so Junior often fights feelings that he has betrayed his tribe.
Good things happen to him too, don’t get me wrong, this book has it’s own happiness. Plus it will make you laugh from the start, and through it all he learns some lessons.
” 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.”
You know that feeling when you read a book and you grasp that you aren’t reading fluff? That you are learning about something that is so important and touching? Well, I love that I can feel the sincerity in the voice of this book. It not only applies to young Indian boys living on reservations, but to all young kids growing up. Junior realizes that everyone has problems not just people on the rez, and we the reader learn from that. He likes to draw pictures, because he says everyone can understand a picture. Even across language barriers a picture can be understood, and that’s what I feel Alexie has done with this book. He paints this grand picture of a young boy coming of age, and not being afraid to hope for the best in life. After all like pictures, hope is universal.
This book has made the American Library Association’s list of most challenged books here in the States, but I feel reality is in these books and the overall message is good. I don’t see hope and overcoming adversity as a bad thing. Books can be powerful and Sherman Alexie really packs a punch. Dare to hope!