Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time IndianThe Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Here is an edited down version of the review I had to submit to my publishing class.

Have you ever felt alone, left out, or as if you haven’t belonged?  You are not alone.  Arnold Spirit, Jr. (Junior) is at that point in his life and The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian is the story of his journey to find out who he is and where he belongs.  Sherman Alexie’s new novel is a coming of age story about a 14-year-old boy living on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington.  This semi-autobiographical novel, Alexie’s first foray into Young Adult literature, evokes the same themes as his award winning poetry and short story fiction; poverty, alcoholism, and despair.
Junior, like Alexie, was born with a condition called hydrocephalus.  They both had surgery when they were six months old and spent their childhoods being teased by other kids and in the cause of Junior even adults.  This left them with plenty of alone time to pursue their hobbies. While Alexie was an aspiring writer, Junior is an artist and his work is sprinkled throughout the novel.  The drawings, provided by artist Ellen Forney, add to Junior’s story; the first drawing is a representation of how Junior sees himself.  While most of the drawings are more doodle than artistic sketches there are a few examples of Junior’s real skill.  These are glimpses of his potential; they are his keys to leaving the reservation.
The reader is exposed to many examples of poverty.  Junior opens his textbook and finds his mother’s name as a previous owner, making the textbook at least 30 years old.  His parents don’t always have enough money to pay for gas so he has to walk to school. Once he starts school at Reardon High School Junior provides the reader with a split image to compare himself to his fellow students.  This doodle shows the obvious differences in financial means of the students.
Poverty is only one point on the continuous cycle Alexie shows that is life on the reservation.  Without coming right out and telling the reader, he shows that poverty is caused by alcoholism, which is caused by despair which is caused by poverty.  It’s not a cycle that is easily broken. Junior has to face even more despair to reach the hope that he has of leaving the reservation and becoming an artist.  It speaks a message to the target age group that sometimes things need to get harder before they get better.
            There is a poetic feel to some of the writing.  There are times when it doesn’t seem as if these words are coming from a teenage boy, but they are beautiful. At times the flow seems scattered, a reflection of the age of the narrator. The dialogue is simple and straight forward, Alexie doesn’t try to force his characters to fill roles that would realistically seem out of place.
            While this book has drawn controversy over the use of language and sex, it is a realistic depiction of Native Americans, one that is hardly ever revealed.  It is a story that can be appreciated by anyone who has had expectations of them lowered and who strives to be better than those lowered expectations.  Knowing that it is semi-autobiographical, it gives hope that a person can overcome barriers and achieve their dreams. Sherman Alexie did, Junior is on his way, and who knows how many more people have and will excel.

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  1. Nice review. I read this book back in grad school in a YA lit class, and I think I felt differently about it then everyone else. It felt so depressing to me because of that terrible cycle you mention, whereas a lot of my classmates seemed to focus on the humor of it. Yes, Junior could be funny, but I think the pathos kept striking me even if the midst of Junior's attempts otherwise. You're right that there is an element of hope in the book (Alexie Sherman's success, the upward trajectory of Junior's life, etc.) but there were also so many examples of heartbreak (Junior's grandmother and sister in the book and, of course, real-life statistics) that I couldn't shake off despite the happy-ish ending. Still, it was a good read, and it certainly doesn't deserve to be banned like some have tried to do as there as plenty of food for thought in here for both teens and adults. And I still love this quote from Junior:

    "I used to think the world was broken down by tribes,” I said. “By black and white. By Indian and white. But I know that isn’t true. The world is only broken into two tribes: The people who are assholes and the people who are not."

    A bit reductive (we can all be the jerk some days) but it's absolutely true that there good and bad and in-between people in every race, ethnicity, gender, etc. so we all just need to get over these stupid stereotypes already.

  2. I had to believe in the hope to get over the cycle otherwise I would have really disliked the book. I think he wrote Jr. with a level of hope. Everything with his grandmother, sister, and his fathers friend could have really cracked him, but he kept pushing forward. He could have let himself get sucked into that cycle but he manages to pull himself through it.