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Friday, January 31, 2014

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Book Review: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

This book is hilarious. But let me start out by saying that this story isn't, in fact, "absolutely true." It's a novel. It's fiction.

However, the author Sherman Alexie did, indeed, grow up on the Spokane reservation called Wellpinit, just like his narrator. He was born with the same medical condition that could have rendered him a brain dead vegetable at only 6-months-old. And he did, indeed, transfer to the white school 30 miles down the road (something that was unheard of in his tribe.) So Alexie welded together a collection of his experiences to create a semi-autobiographical portrait of what it's like to grow up as Native American teenager on a reservation where everyone thinks you've betrayed your culture.

Among other things, this book contains:
  • secret romance novel addictions
  • best friends turned enemies
  • metaphorical boners
  • googling "how to make a white girl fall in love with you" 
  • and grandmothers who wear basketball sneakers "because she's got mad skills."

What makes this "diary" so absolutely endearing to the reader is the voice of it's keeper: Arnold "Junior" Spirit. Arnold doesn't dwell or over-think things. He tells it like it is. He's fourteen.

Having already accepted his role as one of the town's most frequented punching bags, Arnold loves school. On his first day of high school, he excitedly opens his assigned geometry text book, only to find his mother's maiden name scribbled on the front page. The realization that his education program hasn't been updated in over 20 years hits him like a textbook to the face. So naturally, he chucks the book as hard as he can and breaks his teacher's nose.

And that's when Arnold becomes a "part-time Indian," because he knows the only way he has a shot at life is to attend Rearden, the all-white school that crushes his home town's basketball team every year. But nobody leaves the rez.

He then falls into a struggle between where he came from and where he wants to be. A comic drawn at the end of the chapter shows Arnold standing near a directional sign. One way leads to "rez" and "home," while the other leads to "hope" and "???."

It is very rare for a book to touch on themes such as violence, alcoholism, depression, and poverty with such a unique perspective. There's no feeling bad for Arnold Spirit. Because he is a warrior. He is the maker of his own destiny, even if he was born with a condition where there was too much water in his brain. To him, his experiences are funny. They're normal. And we are taken into a world where sisters live in basements, alcoholic fathers love their sons, fighting is a daily occurrence, and sometimes making fun of someone means that they're your best friend.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a coming-of-age story that gives us a sense of hope, and constantly revisits the idea that you can make your life better, even if it means betraying everything you've come from. And perhaps at the end, Arnold realizes that he's not a traitor, but a keeper of culture, spreading it beyond the walls of the reservation and into the world where stereotypes are challenged and haunted lakes catch on fire.

While this is a young adult novel, I would recommend it to anyone. It's an easy read. The chapters are short. And the entire novel is littered with colorful comics (metaphorically colorful--the book is in black and white) that only add to the evolution of the narrator's perspective.

Title: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Author: Sherman Alexie

Genre: Young Adult, Fiction, Coming-of-age

Recommendation: Yes

Best Reader Audience: Teenagers, Young Adults, Anyone

Final Rating: Four and a half out of five somethings.

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