Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Review: The Absolutely True Dairy of a Part Time Indian

by Sherman Alexie. Little, Brown &Co., 2007. This is successful author Alexie's first young adult novel and he has hit the ground running. I've been reading high praise for it for months so I was looking forward to getting my hands on it and none of the hype was overdone. It's great.

Junior Spirit is a fourteen year old boy living on the Spokane reservation in Washington state. He lives with his grandmother, father, mother and older sister in a family mired in generations of poverty and racism. He speaks with an honest, biting voice infused with humor and pain. His character is drawn from real life, as Alexie himself is Native American and grew up on a reservation in Washington. Junior is a budding cartoonist and the book is illustrated throughout with cartoons drawn by Ellen Forney. They appear to be drawn in black pen on lined paper torn out of a school notebook and perfectly match the tone of the text.

In spite of the deep pain expressed in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian I found myself laughing out loud over and over again. The way Junior explains it, Indians love to laugh and use their laughter to express and contain their deepest anger and anguish. Time after time, when tragedy arrives, Junior's response is to laugh. He tells about how his family celebrates Thanksgiving with a turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and all the trimmings. He says,
"I always think it's funny when Indians celebrate Thanksgiving. I mean, sure the Indians and Pilgrims were best friends during that first Thanksgiving, but a few years later, the Pilgrims were shooting Indians.
So I'm never quite sure why we eat turkey like everybody else.
"Hey dad," I said. "What do Indians have to be so thankful for?"
"We should give thanks that they didn't kill all of us."
We laughed like crazy. It was a good day."

Junior realizes he lives in a pretty hopeless place. One of his Indian school teachers comes to visit him after he gets in trouble at school. Mr. P. tells him to get out; get off the reservation, go find a place with hope. He starts crying as he tells Junior that he and every other adult on the reservation is defeated and hopeless, but Junior has a chance and he must take it before they defeat him too. When Junior later asks his parents who has the most hope they look at each other for a long moment and then both say, "White people." When Junior says he wants to transfer to the white high school they give him all the immediate arguments against it and let him knock them down. Then they find a way to send him and support him as best they can, scraping together just enough money to keep him there in cheap tennis shoes. Some days there is no gas money and Junior has to walk 22 miles to and from school.

Junior speaks with the candor about all the things 14 year old boys are concerned with. In some places it is a little to much information for my interests. Since I am a middle aged librarian lady I imagine those are some of the spots that teenagers will like the best. I found Junior's direct way of speaking about racism, poverty, alcoholism, anger, sadness, loss and desperate hope to be inspiring and encouraging. As hard as the sadness is in this book, the poetry of Alexie's writing brings it as alive as an afternoon with your best friend.

Other reviews:
LA Times
New York Times
National Book Award winner, 2007

Best Book list hits:

Kirkus Young-Adult (2007)
PW's Best Books of the Year (2007)
SLJ Best Books (2007)
YALSA Best Books for Young Adults (2007)
YALSA Top Ten Best Books for Young Adults (2007)


Susan T. said...

This was one of my favorite books (in all categories, not just kids') last year. Nice review, Cloudscome!

Shelley said...

I love his stuff and will look forward to reading this even more having read your review. Thanks.