Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

I finally got around to reading Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. It won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature back in 2007 and I've been hearing fantastic things about it ever since.

Wow, talk about a one-two punch.

The narrator of the tale, Junior, is now quite possibly one of my favorite characters. Ever. He will break your heart with his story even as he leaves you in stitches. He's funny and fearless and lovably human. And though hardly immune to his circumstances, nevertheless he forges resolutely on.

Junior has been beating the odds since the day he was born.

He wasn't expected to live past a procedure to remove cerebral spinal fluid from his brain as an infant. Instead, we find he's made it to his teen years in pretty good shape, if you can overlook the crippling poverty, rampant alcoholism and general malaise that afflicts the Spokane Indian Reservation.
It sucks to be poor, and its sucks to feel that you somehow deserve to be poor. You start believing that you're poor because you're stupid and ugly. And then you start believing that you're stupid and ugly because you're Indian. And because you're Indian you start believing you're destined to be poor. It's an ugly circle and there's nothing you can do about it.

Poverty doesn't give you strength or teach you lessons about perseverance. No, poverty only teaches you how to be poor.
Junior, as you can see, is not afraid to tell it like it is.

His parents are drunks. His best friend has an abusive father. His school is so underfunded that it hasn’t updated its textbooks in least 30 years. Junior himself is a skinny, spectacle-wearing, book-kissing nerd, which doesn’t exactly earn him a lot of fans around the rez.

Then one day, prodded into action by his teacher, Junior decides to take his fate into his own hands. He decides to transfer to the all-white school in the neighboring town of Reardan, 22 miles away. His parents support the move, recognizing that it will allow Junior to get a better education and access to more opportunities. But they’re pretty much the exception. Junior's community proceeds to treat him like he's betrayed them. The Reardan High School kids ignore him.

Junior's beauty is how he weathers his hardships with such aplomb and good humor. Though lonely and confused, he hangs in there, funneling his energy into positive outlets, from doodling comics to joining the basketball team. And slowly but surely, things begin to change.

I recommend this book to anyone who's looking for a pick-me-up. Diary is a daring book, too, pushing the boundaries of young adult lit with its dark humor, language and examination of race, all of which has frequently landed it on Top 10 lists for most frequently challenged titles. We have it in book form (YP FIC ALEXIE; you'll get to see Junior's awesome doodles, drawn by Ellen Forney), audiobook (AD YP FIC ALEXIE), and downloadable audio. I listened to the audio version, which is narrated by the author. I'm sometimes leery of authors reading their own stuff but Sherman really knocks it out of the ballpark and brings 14-year-old Junior to life.

Junior may endure, at times, the unimaginable, but it's a statement to Sherman's talent how we still feel optimistic and hopeful for Junior’s future.

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