Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Sherman Alexie is a well-known author of adult books and poetry. His first novel for Young Adults is an absolute winner, literally. It won the prestigious National Book Award for Young People's Literature in 2007. Based on Alexie's life it is comedic, tragic, and poignant in so many ways.Told in the 1st person, the novel recounts the year that Arnold Spirit, aka Junior, leaves the rez school to attend a white school 20 miles from his home. Junior is a Spokane Indian who suffers from multiple physical issues. He was born hydrocephalic, he stutters, and he lisps. In addition his parents are alcoholics and the family is extremely poor. When handed a book in math class on the first day of school, he sees that his mother's name is listed on the inside of the book. It had been used since his mother was in school and that was not fair. He heaves the book and it hits his teacher in the face. It was at this point, after his suspension, that Mr. P. encourages him to attend the white school. "You've kept your hope. And now you have to take your hope and go somewhere where other people have hope."

And so he does and he meets people who give him some of that hope. But he still has to go home to the rez. The year goes by and Junior tells us of trying out for the basketball team, facing his good friend, Rowdy, on the court, trying to understand why is sister Mary has runaway, and lamenting the countless funerals he must attend. He is fourteen and already has attended forty two funerals. "That's the difference between Indians and white people." His talent on the basketball court allows him ,finally, to be accepted, tho the process is not without pain. His coach reminds him of the Vince Lombardi quote (no not the win or lose one), but "the quality of a man's life is in direct proportion to his commitment to excellence, regardless of his chosen field of endeavor." That should be a mantra for us all.

The book is enhanced by the cartoon-like drawings Junior draws. Some are just hilarious as he attempts to get his thoughts down on paper. Drawings are understood by everyone and transcend speech and language. And these drawings do that for this book. This was an amazing book and one that stays with the reader long after the last page is turned. Yes, in times it is raunchy and earthy, but it is blatantly honest and captivating and should be a must read by all.

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