The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
by Sherman Alexie
Little, Brown and Company | 230 pp | $16.99
Award-winning book proves controversal among some parents.
Sherman Alexie’s June 9, 2011 essay “Why the Best Kids Books Are Written in Blood” that was published in “The Wall Street Journal” caught my attention. Here was Sherman Alexie defending Sherman Alexie for writing “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” which just happened to become a “New York Times” bestseller and win the National Book Award.
At issue was another “The Wall Street Journal” essay called, “Darkness Too Visible,” written by Meghan Cox Gurdon that was critical of young-adult novels that Gurdon feels is too explicit of “abuse, violence and depravity.” In her essay she mentions Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by name in that it was on the American Library Association’s Top 10 list in 2010 young’adult challenged books.
I found myself wanting to defend Sherman Alexie, but if you have ever met Sherman Alexie, you would know Sherman Alexie does not need me to defend him. Quite frankly, Sherman Alexie is quite comfortable in his blended Spokane and Coeur d’Alene skin.
Alexie did a fine job of defending himself in his essay.
However, the issue prompted me to re-read “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” again this past week. The young-adult novel is absolutely hilarious and tells more about growing up on an Indian reservation than I would have cared to disclose – because I don’t necessarily like to share with non-Indians certain aspects or realities of being American Indian.
Alexie, however, always pushes the envelope on American Indian matters, which is what makes him such a great and highly successful writer.
In “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” Alexie writes a novel that is really an autobiographical portrayal of a poor Indian teen who seeks a better life. He discovers he will get a better life if he can escape the Indian reservation.
An eye-opening episode for Junior, the main character, is when he discovers his mother’s name – complete in her own hand writing with her maiden name – in a thirty-year old geometry book the Indian school on the Spokane Indian Reservation issued to him.
Junior knew he had to get away from the Indian reservation so he could get a more up-to-the-date education that was not an antiquated one, the way things taught thirty years prior.
So, Junior with resistance from friends and family, goes to a “white” school twenty-two miles from his home on the Spokane Indian Reservation. There he experiences a whole different set of problems, encountered by Indians when they deal with non-Indians, such as isolation and prejudice that can be summed up in one word: racism.
Throughout the book Junior emerges as a survivor, which is now in part of the modern-day American Indian persona. We are resilient survivors. Key to the surviving is Indian humor, which Junior is another aspect of the American Indian persona. Indian humor can be summed up as being a realistic view of life mixed with laughter. It is Indian humor that allows Junior to survive being Indian.
Beyond Indian humor, Alexie mixes in the sad realities of being Indian – filled with abuse, drunkenness and poverty in “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.”
Perhaps, it is the poverty that unveils the sad realities of life because money has a way of camouflaging reality. People with money have many of the same social ills among them as do poor Indians, but money blinds and hides them for a longer period of time.
Alexie cuts to the chase within the young-adult novel “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.” One prime example is: “Reservations were meant to be prisons, you know? Indians were supposed to move onto reservations and die. We were supposed to disappear. But somehow or another, Indians have forgotten that reservations were meant to be death camps.”
Now, that type of language may offend the Mehgan Cox Gurdons of the world. It may make them uncomfortable – whatever the age level or even skin color – but it is still true. Alexie is fearless here.
I found myself wanting to defend Sherman Alexie, but it is not necessary, Alexie does a great job all by himself. And the good news is he is working on a sequel to “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.”
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