Sunday 10 April 2016
#CBR8 Book 36: "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" by Sherman Alexie
Audio book length: 4hrs 51mins
Rating: 5 stars
Arnold "Junior" Spirit doesn't exactly have an easy time of it. Born poor and hydrocephalic, it's pretty much a miracle that he survived infancy. Suffering from stuttering, his over-large head, bad eyesight and frequent seizures, he's routinely picked on by both children and adults on the Spokane reservation, finding solace in basketball, his drawing and his best friend Rowdy.
When Junior transfers away from the school on the reservation to get a chance at a real education, Rowdy feels deeply betrayed, like Junior's sold out his heritage and he loses the only friend he's ever had. If he thought he was an outcast on the reservation, being the only Native American in an all white high school, 22 miles from where he lives, Junior is in for a rude awakening. Stubborn and fiercely intelligent, he's still determined to prove to everyone that he can make it, without giving up his Native American roots in the process.
This book slayed me, as they say. I was a blubbering wreck from the second chapter, when Junior explains to the reader that the worst thing about being poor is that when your beloved dog, a stray mutt, gets sick and needs medical attention, there is absolutely nothing that can be done. Because I listened to this in audiobook, I was straight up sobbing on my way to the grocery store, which is really quite embarrassing. This book, which straight up broke my heart a little, also made me laugh a lot, so it's really not a complete sob-fest. It's a semi-autobiographical account of author Sherman Alexie's own life growing up on a reservation and deciding to go to an all white high school so he could gain enough credits to go to college.
For all that there are funny and uplifting passages, there is so much to feel outraged about too. Junior losing his dog because his family is too poor to take it to the vet. His father's alcoholism, his mother's crushed potential, his sister's depression. The fact that the books used to teach Junior in the reservation high school are the same ones his mother used thirty years earlier. The systematic abuse his friend Rowdy is victim to. The fact that most of the people in Junior's life are helpless and hopeless and their children will be as poor and as hopeless as them. So much grief, misery and death, caused by the continued oppression of the Native Americans.
This is such an important book and it's so well written. It frequently appears on the banned books list in the US, probably because of the honest and open way it deals with teenage sexuality, poverty, alcoholism and drug abuse, bullying, inappropriate language relating to race, physical appearance, disability and sexual orientation. I think every teenager should be made to read this book and told how much truth there is behind the apparent fiction, so they realise just how privileged and lucky they are and can see just how it's possibly to remain strong and resilient in the face of so much adversity.
Because I got this as an audio book, I was not able to look at all the illustrations that accompany the paperback version of the book. I plan to buy the paperback for just this reason, and I am seriously considering making this required reading for the 10th graders in my English class next year. It's certainly a much more important, interesting and engaging book than snooze-fest waste of space The Catcher in the Rye.
Crossposted on Cannonball Read.