Title: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
Author: Sherman Alexie
Illustrator: Ellen Forney
Genre: Young Adult Fiction
If you're one of those people who's a sucker for a good go-get-'em story, this is it. Sherman Alexie's first novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, is a true-to-life novel written from the perspective of a fifteen-year-old boy, Junior Spirit, a Spokane Indian, living on a reservation in Washington State. Junior was born hydrocephalic ("water on the brain" as Junior puts it) and not expected to survive, and if he did, he would live as a vegetable or with mental retardation for the rest of his life. Sounds like a fun book, right? Well, Junior turns out okay--he's actually a pretty smart kid with a love and talent for drawing. When a teacher at his reservation high school suggests (well, practically demands) that he transfer to a school off the reservation that would better fuel his potential, he does. Alexie describes and artist Ellen Forney shows a boy who's past tells him he should not succeed, but he does anyway.
This novel would not be nearly as intriguing if it were not for the setting. For those of us who didn't know much about life on an Indian reservation, this was a wake-up call. This is not simply some kid in poverty trying to fight for a better life. He is trying to beat off generations of abject poverty, distrust of an entire group of people (white people), and a cycle of abuse and alcoholism. The serious lack of hope slaps you in the face while reading certain passages. Alexie, having grown up on the reservation where the story is set, is well aware of this life and does not sugar coat the situation. While Junior is a funny and bright kid, a blast listen to, there is a sense of bitterness when you read about his life on the reservation and the painful awareness he has, knowing everything Native American's have lost as a people. Reservation life is a major player throughout the book. Junior has to face the biogtry at his new school (he is the only other Indian there, as the book says, besides the mascot), but he also must face the anger of community members back on the "rez." While Junior is already grappling with typical teenager crises, he must also maneuver between two cultures and try to maintain an identity.
And it's not just the bitterness that you can hear when you read Diary but every other emotion that Junior experiences. It feels as though Alexie froze his voice at fifteen and was able to put it on the page. For anyone who has any extended interaction with fifteen-year-old boys, you'll hear them here. There is a certain friendly self-conciousness that travels with kids at that age, and it's here in this book. And it's there in a variety of scenes, not just in the ones that are authentically "boy" (boners, girls, masturbation, fighting, sports), but in other, more serious topics (racism, hope, death). And since Junior is a cartoonist, there are a number of really great accompanying illustrations, which enhance the whole experience of reading Junior's words, because you are privvy to both forms of his thoughts.
This is also the first book I've read in a long time that actually had a natural plot. It didn't seem quite so contrived, or like a teen drama series on T.V. So many books in this genre have a very predictable plot: things suck, something changes, things suck less, things are GREAT, something happens, things suck more than ever before, things get better and/or are great again. Here, the good and the bad come all at once, or take turns, but I kept waiting for that terrible thing to happen (and terrible things do happen), but there isn't that dramatic, hear-wrenching moment where everything in Junior's life is destroyed. Things get hard, yes, not to minimize some of the heart-breaking things that occur, but some good parts of life are preserved. Junior remembers that, despite all the crap life is throwing at him, life is still worth living. This is one of the most important messages in the novel--no matter what, life is still worth it, you can move on, and you can have hope.
Comparable Reads: The best thing I can compare this to is Rule of the Bone by Russell Banks and Catcher and the Rye by J.D. Salinger. Junior reminds me of Bone and Holden in the sort of tough-kid acidness and the general weird-brilliance all three seem to posess. So, if you've read either one of those books and enjoyed them, this is a definate must-read.
Who is this book for?: Give this book to your middle to high school aged son, cousin, brother, nephew, best friend, whatever. It's hysterical, talks about heavy subjects without getting corny or actually feeling heavy, and is just overall fantastic. I also think it'd be a good choice for someone who isn't a big reader. It's a fast read, the language is accessible, and it has pictures (who doesn't love pictures?!). Fair warning, though, it CAN get crude. My tolerance is pretty high, but if you're a parent handing this to your kid for summer reading, be warned: there is talk about masturbation, erections, and sex. Nothing graphic and probably not anything most teens don't already know and talk about, but it's good to know.