YA novel to read in a day but remember far longer
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
Genre: YA, General Fiction
Award: National Book Award for Young People
Read Harder #24: by native or First Nation author; Modern Mrs Darcy #4: local author
Published 2007, 230 pages
This book has been on my bookshelf for years. I don't know why I've kept avoiding it - especially since I didn't even know what it was about; I barely remember buying it. So finally, in these days of staying at home AND because I'm trying to read more books that I already own to satisfy reading challenge categories, I read the book.
What I do know is more about the author than the actual book. I know he's a local author from the Spokane tribe of Washington. I know he's written many books about native Americans. But I didn't know that this is his first foray into YA fiction and I didn't know anything about this book. That being said, I found this gem of a book unexpectedly engaging. I zoomed through it in a day because....well, I couldn't put it down.
"And, oh, I was skinny. I'd turn sideways and disappear. But my hands and feet were huge. My feet were a size eleven in third grade! With my big feet and pencil body, I looked like a capital L walking down the road."
Told in the first person by main character Junior, it's so heartbreaking and yet funny to be inside his head. I think Junior is written as a believable 14 year old kid with issues. He has health issues that make him always the outsider so he doesn't have many friends, yet he's bright and thoughtful. He has a best friend, Rowdy, and I love how that relationship is explored. He notices and thinks about things. He's not blind to his restrictive circumstances but also scrapes up enough courage to try to change his circumstances.
"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."
Junior is a budding cartoonist and avid reader. He draws to help him deal with his emotions, his frustrations, his difficult life. He says, "I take them [cartoons] seriously. I use them to understand the world. I use them to make fun of the world. To make fun of people. And sometimes I draw people because they're my friends and family. And I want to honor them." There's also a couple pages in the middle of the book that reflect on the value of reading, of knowlege, of books in general that are .... profound. To me, it illustrates how everyone, in any circumstance, can use some hobby or interest to deal with difficulties of life. Junior ultimately decides to leave the rez high school and go to the all white high school in a town 22 miles away. That's a whole different set of problems!
Alcoholism is an ever present thread in the life of Junior and his family and the larger community. It's not glossed over and Junior talks about his pain when alcohol related deaths hit his friends and family. His grandmother was an exception to the rule of drunken Indians:
"But my grandmother had never drunk alcohol in her life. Not one drop. That's the rarest kind of Indian in the world. I know only, like, five Indians in our whole tribe who have never drunk alcohol. She used to say, "Drinking would shut down my seeing and my hearing and my feeling. Why would I want to be in the world if I couldn't touch the world with all of my senses intact?"
I feel like this book tackles some tough themes like poverty, racism, bullying, trying to fit in, and alcoholism in a realistic but digestible way for young people. It has a few dark moments, but they're handled with a light touch. It made me smile several times and shake my head in sadness a few times. Since it's told from the perspective of a teen dealing with all those things personally, it might help a young person deal with similar issues. (Plus it almost feels autobiographical.) And on that note, you might read the book and preview it before recommending it to your teen - I can't possibly put an appropriate age on this, but would imagine it would be targeting older teens due to the themes. But you know your child best and what their reading and emotional level is.
Photos of eastern WA & Horse Monument by Terrie Purkey