Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

We read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie, for book club.  I'd heard of Alexie through Selected Shorts - a podcast I adore - they're big fans of his.  It's a YA book about a young Spokane Indian boy who lives on a reservation in Washington State.  Arnold Spirit describes himself as an awkward, pimply teenager, who gets beat up on a regular basis by other kids and even adults on the Reservation.  A teacher encourages him to go to a school outside the reservation, at which point he starts to feel more hope for the future.  He faces almost unbelievable challenges like lack of food, an alcoholic father, his disabilities (he was born with Hydrocephalus), lack of transportation (our book club was shocked that the character claimed to often walk 22 miles from school when his dad was too drunk to pick him up or there wasn't enough money for gas).  He becomes a "part-time" Indian - at home, on the Reservation, he's a full-Indian - at school, he identifies with his most-white classmates - unable to completely fit in either world, he finds it necessary to navigate between these very different cultures and societal groups.

Arnold loves to draw, and the book is illustrated with cartoons that he created (artwork is by Ellen Forney).  The cartoonish drawings lend a graphic-novel aspect to the book, causing it at once to fly by quicker, but also to allow those interested in the images to linger over the little details.

What was most interesting was learning about life and culture on the Reservation  - a little-known way of life for many Americans, despite the fact that it's such an important part of our collective histories.  For me, this book was a little too boy-focused, and I got a bit bored in the more basketball-y parts - but I would highly recommend this book to any young reader (old enough to deal with the themes of death and alcoholism.  Side note: this book is frequently challenged in schools and libraries apparently because of a masturbation reference!)
Overnight, I became a good player.
I suppose it had something to do with confidence. I mean, I'd always been the lowest Indian on the reservation tomtem pole - I wasn't expected to be good so I wasn't. But in Reardan, my coach and the other players wanted me to be good. They needed me to be good. They expected me to be good. And so I became good.
I wanted to live up to expectations.
I guess that's what it comes down to.
The power of expectations.
What really emerged in our book club was how little we know about American Indians today, and what a shame it is that Indian history is not a part of our national dialogue - I think this book is a really valuable contribution to literature and society (no less!) for the insight it provides.


Karen said...

I looove Sherman Alexie! Did you all enjoy the book? I highly recommend Reservation Blues if you haven't already read it. :)

Special K said...

thanks for the tip, Karen! And thanks for reading. Yes, I enjoyed this quite a book - I'll look into Reservation Blues - someone at book club recommended that as well. (: