Tuesday, October 23, 2012

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

This is one of the many books that I should have read a long time ago, and I finally picked it up in honor of Banned Books Week. For some reason, I can never get the teens in my library interested in this one. After reading it, I’m going to redouble my efforts; this is a powerful, funny, and heartbreaking book.

The story is a semi-autobiographical account of Alexie’s own childhood, told through the lens of a physically weak but fiercely intelligent 14-year-old American Indian named Arnold Spirit Jr. Having grown up on the Spokane Indian Reservation amidst rampant alcoholism and crippling poverty, Junior (as he’s known on the rez) clings to his flawed family and his rough best friend, Rowdy, and draws comics as an emotional outlet. A chance encounter with a teacher convinces him that in order to escape the downward trajectory that seems to afflict everyone he knows, he must attend Reardan, the affluent, all-white high school outside the reservation. His unprecedented defection makes him an outcast both at his new school and among his own people, and seems to bring nothing but further tragedy down upon his head. Even so, he is determined to stay the course he has set, relying on his wit and strength of spirit to find new friends and make peace with the upbringing he is trying to escape.

This is a fairly standard Bildungsroman, and follows a familiar course as Junior breaks into adolescence and emotionally matures. The book stands out, however, in the voice of the boy telling the story. The story started as an anecdote from Alexie’s own childhood, and it shows; Junior’s diary bleeds with emotion, by turns furious, despairing, and prematurely world-weary. That being said, this book is consistently funny. Between Junior’s sharp, self-effacing wit and his satirical comics (adeptly drawn by Ellen Forney), his story is buoyed by absurd vignettes, made poignant by the earnest seriousness of his circumstances.

While the plot itself is standard YA fare, the depiction of life on an Indian reservation isn’t. Alexie paints a picture of desperation and racial tension that is unique to one particular group of people that remains mostly underrepresented. Most importantly, he showcases the issues that a boy of Junior’s culture must endure while still making him universally relatable. Arnold Spirit Jr. is a 14-year-old boy, and ultimately faces the same trials any 14-year-old boy must face.

I feel like I’m ranging all over the place while trying to review this book, but that might be appropriate. Junior’s story whipsaws between hilarious and heartbreaking, and doesn’t waste words while doing so; this is a slim book and makes for a very quick read. It’s worth a look for anyone, though, regardless of age. At its most basic level, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a diverting, visually interesting, and bittersweet little story that also serves as a primer for Alexie’s other works. Also, it’s frequently challenged by parents who think it will introduce their preadolescent children to the concept of masturbation. So, if you don’t find that as amusing as I do, at least read it because all banned books deserve to be read.

Verdict: 5 / 5

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