The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 230 pages
Sherman Alexie tells the story of Junior, a budding cartoonist growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Determined to take his future into his own hands, Junior leaves his troubled school on the rez to attend an all-white farm town high school where the only other Indian is the school mascot. Heartbreaking, funny, and beautifully written, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which is based on the author’s own experiences, coupled with poignant drawings that reflect the character’s art, chronicles the contemporary adolescence of one Native American boy as he attempts to break away from the life he thought he was destined to live.
I’m not going to lie – I only got this book because of two things: The Book Smugglers review and Neil Gaiman’s praise was the first thing you’ll see at the back of the book. Okay wait, make it three things: the hardcover version was cheaper than the paperback version. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book, but I was hungry for something contemporary over the weekend so I dug this out from the plastic bags that currently house my books.
Junior has had a hard life. The book immediately starts with one of the things that has made Junior’s life hard, that he was born with water in his brain. Junior then narrates how unfortunate he was with his health, and how unlucky he was with the other things that white people take for granted because he is an Indian living on the Spokane Indian Reservation (simply called “rez” throughout the book). Despite all the unfortunate things Junior had to deal with in his life, however, it was very clear that there was something special about him, something that made him different from all other Indians in the rez. This was seen by his geometry teacher, Mr. P, who, after getting hit on the face by a Junior’s geometry book that used to belong to his mother, convinces Junior to leave the reservation and study somewhere else if he wanted to get ahead with his life.
And so Junior leaves, with little resistance from his family and a lot from his fellow Indians. This is where Junior’s adventures start, as he becomes the first and only Indian to study in an all-white school. Junior believes the white people have it better than he does (and they do) and that they would be out to get him for being different (surprisingly, they weren’t). Here we see Junior punch a guy in the face expecting a fight but instead gets respect, “fall in love” with a girl who has her own problems, be a basketball star and do many other things that he never thought he would get to do because he was Indian. We also see Junior deal with racism from unexpected people, lose his best friend and experience deaths (yes, deaths!) and grief, yet he always bounces back somehow.
Resilient is the best word to describe Junior. He has been so used to his life that even if bad things happen to him in succession, he always learns to bounce back. He tells his story in such a matter-of-fact tone that sometimes it hurts to read that someone just accepts a sad fate like that without ever trying to get out of it. But Junior tries to get out of it, despite how the world seemed to want to push him back to where he thought he used to belong. And as you go along, you’d find that you want Junior to succeed. Together with Junior, I realized that the world is not always black and white, or broken into colors or tribes, but by…well, I think the author wrote it very eloquently here:
“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”.
I cannot help but compare this book to Stephen Emond‘s Happyface. They both have the same tone, the same quirky lead character, and artwork (even if Happyface is more artwork than text). However, in terms of problems, Junior definitely carries the bigger weight. Happyface is a victim of his circumstance while Junior is a victim of a fate that people before him had long determined. This is not to say that Happyface is shallow, though — his problems were totally legit. However, if you put them beside Junior’s, they definitely look smaller and more insignificant than what Junior had to deal with all his life.
But maybe that’s also a lesson in perspective too. Some of us may be Happyfaces, some of us may be Juniors, but that doesn’t mean that one problem is lesser than the other. I think what matters more is how we deal with these problems and how we try to rise up from it. Because that’s really the most important thing, right? How we keep on standing up no matter how many times we fall, or no matter how many times others make us fall. Happyface just happened to live in a different kind of rez compared to Junior, IMHO.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian teaches us that there is more to life than what we know of our own reservations, be it figurative or literal ones. Junior said it quite well: “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.” This book teaches us that we must not be satisfied to stay within our own death camps, and hope that we find enough courage, arrogance and craziness to leave them.
This book is real, honest, funny, heartbreaking and inspiring. This is one book that I am pretty sure one of us will relate to in one way or the other. A definite must-read. :)
2010 Challenge Status:
* Book # 99 out of 100 for 2010
My copy: hardcover from National Bookstore
Cover image & Blurb: Goodreads