The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I've grown jaded about book hype. The more people rave about how good a book is, the more awards it piles on, the more I steel myself to hate it, or at least come away feeling unimpressed. The only exception, before this book, was The Book Thief. The list of books worth the hype doubles in size (and becomes a proper list, while it's at it) with The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.
The story follows Arnold "Junior" Spirit through his fourteenth year as he realizes there's no future for him if he stays on the reservation. He enrolls in the nearby all-white school, angering most of his friends and neighbors, who view his transfer as a betrayal. He struggles with the culture shock of suddenly being surrounded by white people, retaining his identity as a Native American, and his drive to succeed despite his humble upbringing.
While the narrator's culture plays a large part in the story, that isn't all the story is about. Junior also has physical and developmental disabilities to deal with, poverty, deaths of those he loves, and fitting in at a new school. While all of these are informed, affected by, or perhaps even caused by his ethnic identity, they're struggles most teenagers should be able to relate to or empathize with. The personal racism he faces from fellow students and their parents, as well as the institutional racism that keeps those on the reservation poorly educated with few opportunities, is a strong element within the book. But it's not the only element.
The book is careful to paint nothing as black and white. Native Americans are never helpless victims, nor evil savages bringing their problems on themselves. The bullying that takes place on the reservation is more physical in nature, but it does have rules, and it's something Junior knows how to deal with. The bullying he experiences from his white classmates is no less vicious, but it baffles him, and his confusion does a lot to deflect it.
Similarly, there are no evil white characters, with the possible exception of his girlfriend, Penelope's, father. Junior's presence doesn't cure any of his classmates of their racism, but they do learn to question their assumptions and treat him like a human being instead of just a brown-skinned weirdo.
I felt the book's strongest point was the humor. Even in the midst of tragedy, Junior has wry observations that tempt the reader to laugh. I usually gave into temptation. Somehow, the humor doesn't undercut the seriousness, but instead underlines it. Junior has to approach everything with his wonderful sense of humor intact, or he'd just give up. He has so much tragedy in his young life. And yet, thanks to that humor, it never devolves into pathos.
I listened to the audio version of this book, read by the author. That made it a lot easier to laugh at the funny parts, because Sherman Alexie's comic delivery is perfect. It also clarified the part where people are making fun of how Junior speaks, which I would've imagined as far more exaggerated. Listening to this book on audio does mean I missed out on the illustrations in the printed edition, but I think it was a worthy sacrifice.
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