Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Sherman Alexie is an amazing writer. I was first captivated by a short story he wrote (which I highly recommend), "Because My Father Always Said He Was the Only Indian to See Jimi Hendrix Play 'The Star Spangled Banner' at Woodstock." Incredible story. Then I read a bunch of his poems, my favorite being "Buffalo Bill." Powerful poem.

Alexie is most noted for his writings on Native Americans. He has different mediums of conveying stories about them and identifying their current struggles. I am fascinated by how honest and revealing he is. He is truly an educator in this format.

Today, I read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, a novel targeted at young adults. It is a novel that includes pictures, since the protagonist is an aspiring cartoonist, which help depict the plot as it unfolds. The pictures are another excellent way of conveying the progonist's feelings and describing (and literally picturing) new characters as they enter each scene.

For struggling readers, this is a great book. It has graphic novel features but is mostly text. The chapters are short and the narration isn't over-the-top. The narration is conversational and to-the-point. He actually has a pretty solid flow as he reads. He uses a lot of repetition to show how the protagonist is coping and what he observes in certain scenes. He'll vary longer paragraphs to quick, choppy ones. Longer text is broken apart by lists, pictures, dialogue, or sound effects. It's really easy to get through.

I would LOVE to teach this to an older middle school group (8th grade) or early high school group (9th or 10th grade). There is so much to discuss in this novel, and I think the students would REALLY connect with the plot. This novel would also really appeal to boys for many reasons. There is a male narrator. He plays sports, and there is a lot of description towards the end about his basketball team. He is involved with a girl and honestly (almost too honestly) describes his thoughts and feelings about it.

However, I would also be skeptical to teach it because of some content issues. There is a lot of talk about sex and maturation, using vulgar words. The book is almost too honest to the point where a school might have hesitations passing it. There are minor swear words (ass, fricking, fag, etc). The protagonist's father is an alcoholic, which could actually be a good thing to talk about in a mature classroom environment. But the group reading it would have to be mature enough to discuss these topics and not get too hung up on these small things.

The plot of the novel is interesting, I think anyway. The 9th grade narrator, Arnold, is confronted by a white teacher (since he lives and goes to school on his reservation) and is told that the only way for him to excel in this life is to leave the reservation. The reservation is depicted as having tons and tons of drunks that are poor and struggling. It's a vicious cycle. Arnold takes his advice and goes to a neighboring all-white school which introduces a plethora of issues and problems. He is basically outcasted from the reservation and is not understood by peers at first. He slowly makes friends, and even a girlfriend, through his wit and charm, and by being an incredible basketball player.

Along the way, Arnold struggles with getting rides to school, being accepted by white peers who tease him for being Indian, having other students accept his poverty, taking care of his drunk father, dealing with deaths in his family, losing his best friend Rowdy (who was angry that he abandoned him and the reservation), and then finally, playing his former school and best friend in basketball.

SPOILER: Arnold ends up beating Rowdy and his school, which was formerly undefeated, and soon rekindles his friendship with Rowdy after his sister passes, which Rowdy blames on Arnold. After Arnold left to go to his new school, his sister ran away with another Native American to live in a trailer in Montana. The trailer catches on fire during a party, and they are too drunk to awaken. The novel ends with Rowdy and Arnold playing basketball, finally understanding that Rowdy is meant to stay at the reservation but Arnold is meant to leave on go on to bigger things.


I find it so sad and disturbing to see what has become of reservations and Native Americans. Stereotypes are terrible. It seems like they're coping for a lot of crap that we have put them through over many, many years. To write about it, from experiencing it like Alexie has, is interesting for someone to read about who has not a full grasp of what it is like. And for this, I think it's even more imperative for teens to read. It's good for them to understand so much about cultures they don't fully know about, especially cultures that exist within our own country. Knowledge helps kill ignorance, and maybe this novel could bring that one step closer!

Personally, I loved the integration of pictures. It's different than most books. I also loved how brutally honest the narrator is. He swears, he talks about his sexuality, and he paints his culture accurately (or so I can only speculate). It's refreshing. It clearly sounds like a teenage boy, and I think a lot of high school students could appreciate that. And, he's funny. Very funny.

I recommend it, but I would think about who I was going to recommend it to. Some parents might not want their kids reading it, and I can see why. Some might not care. Some of the language and material may not be new to some, but it may be to others. Personally, I liked it and would recommend it, but I have to put that warning out there just in case.

Alexie is so strong in creative titles that make them sound so interesting that you just have to read them. Anything by Alexie is a joy to read. And this definitely makes the list.

What do you think of The Absolultey True Diary of a Part-Time Indian?


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