Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Another entry in the "adult fiction writer tries to write for teens - is it marketing or is author actually good?" pile is Sherman Alexie. To address the question of the quality of his first book for teens, the answer is...darn good. Congrats, Mr. Alexie! You win a spot in a very elite group.

The book states that much of the material comes from Alexie's own life. Our main character is Arnold Spirit, a Spokane Indian living on the reservation. He's just starting his freshman year, and after an enlightening conversation with his geometry teacher, he makes the bold decision to transfer to a high school off the reservation. Not to just any high school, but Reardan. The non-Indian (a.k.a. "white") Reardan. The Reardan whose mascot is a big-nosed, feather-wearing Indian - now Arnold is the 2nd Indian in the school. Arnold makes things difficult for himself on the reservation by making this bold move. He has always been an outcast and now he's viewed as a traitor and a white lover. Everyone but his parents and grandma turn against him.

Each chapter moves through one more struggle Arnold has to face. Some of these are happy outcomes, some surprising, and some heartbreaking. There's quite a bit of black humor in here. While this could be "just another teen coming of age novel", Alexie really adds something new, for me at least, in that Arnold's perspective as a teen American Indian is rare. His thoughts on white people for instance, are fascinating. He first admires his white classmates at Reardan as being "translucent". In one of the best flips on cliché, the bigotry that could be assumed when a poor Indian kid jumps ship to an upper class white school doesn't really happen in Arnold's story. Even he is shocked! And that's not what this book is about, anyway. Thankfully.

It is also worth mentioning that Indian history, alcoholism, poverty, and apathy are big targets in the book.

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 is a great book: fun to read, surprising, and well written. The cartoons that Arnold draws in the book contribute to the story as well. I think it is essential for any library and I'm sure there will be quite a bit of buzz about it. Is it an award winner? Maybe not. But fun, easy readers are always overlooked. As Arnold would write, "BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!" (The book is due to hit stores September 12.)

No comments: