The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
pub. Little, Brown Young Readers, 240 pp.
WOW! Wow, wow, wow, wow, wow. And if this weren’t a student oriented blog, I’d say something that began with “Holy…”
I got to hear Sherman Alexie speak at the ALAN conference last week and was quite taken with him. While he spoke about things that were awful, unfair, and almost inhuman, he had the uncanny ability to make us laugh at the same time. This in no way belittled the things he was talking about, but rather it brought them into a clearer focus.
Unfortunately, one of the few books not included in the ALAN box, was Alexie’s. So, even though I have over 70 new books to read and share, I went directly to my local bookstore and bought both of his new books (this YA novel, and his most recent adult book as well).
It certainly didn’t take me long to tear through Diary, either. This is an amazing book. It tells the story of a 14 year old boy who has grown up on an Indian reservation. When he finds his mother’s maiden name written in his freshman geometry text book, he realizes that he needs to leave the ‘rez’, to do something else, if he ever wants to become more than what he sees around him . The rez is so poor, that he has been given a 30 year old text book. Things just don’t change on the rez.
What ensues when he changes schools and starts attending a far more privileged school for whites in a neighboring town, is the focus of the book. Not only is he the only Indian other than the mascot at his new school, but he is treated as a traitor by those on the rez, including his ex-best friend.
This book is outright funny in many places. Alexie’s timing and wry look at the world left me laughing out loud in many places. However, in many of these very same places I found myself thinking that I should be crying at the same time. Just because he uses humor, don’t think that Alexi pulls any, and I mean any, punches. For example, when talking about the poverty on the rez and the reality that his father would need to shoot a beloved pet because they couldn’t afford to take him to the vet, the narrator says, “I wanted to run faster than the speed of sound, but nobody, no matter how much pain they’re in, can run that fast. So I heard the boom of my father’s rifle when he shot my best friend. A bullet only costs about 2 cents, and anyone can afford that.”
All in all, this is an amazing story. The dual pressures that the narrator lives under – to be Junior, the member of his family and his tribe on the reservation, and to be Arnold, the basketball playing, possibly college bound student at his new school – clash violently and often in unexpected places, and yet Arnold still finds beauty and happiness. The book’s subject matter is at times painful, depressing, and often pokes at open sores, and yet it is still a positive, hopeful, and ultimately triumphant book.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a fabulous pick for, and completely deserving of the National Book Award that it just won.