Monday, 14 September 2009
A book that broke my heart and patched it up again....
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is Sherman Alexie's first full-length novel, published in 2007. I read it as part of Dewey's Challenge, though I would have read it anyway just because it looks interesting. I was not prepared for how good it really is. I didn't expect to cry and laugh, often at the very same time, most of the way through it. Going to his site here I discovered that since it's publication, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian has been winning awards: 2007 National Book Award for Young People's Literature, 2008 Washington Book Award, The New York Times Notable Children's Books of 2007, are a few.
But I don't like this book because it is an award winner. I like it because it is an honest, true portrayal of being Indian and growing up on the rez in a white world. And how do I, Mrs White Canada, know about Indian life? Because I've met many Indians, some are friends of mine, I've been to rezes and powwows and met elders and medicine men, and mostly because my best friend, and my brother (who is adopted, a long story), are Indian. But you don't have to have met any Native Americans to recognize the genius of this novel, you don't have to know about the poverty and isolation and no hope on reserves, to appreciate Arnold "Junior" Spirit and how he attempts to get off the rez. You just have to cheer him on, and laugh at his silly and wise adolescent humour as he faces heartbreak and loss and love and friends. This just happens to be a book about a Native American Indian boy. It's mostly about a boy who wants to dare to make a better life for himself.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is about Arnold "Junior" Spirit and the year he decides to change his life by going to a different high school off the Spokane reservation where he lives. The Diary is told in the first person, and as Arnie is a cartoonist, the novel is sprinkled with hilarious dry wit as Arnie makes fun of himself, his classmates, friends, family, and the world. Arnie is the class loser, the kid with geeky glasses and big feet who can't win a fight, but who still keeps picking them. It's that refusal to give up that makes this book such a joyful and tragic read.
Sherman Alexie doesn't hold anything back, either. Life on the reservation is told in all its sadness, and all its Indian humour. White people are made fun of often (and we do deserve most of it in the book), but so are Indians, so is the world, his schoolmates, so is love, and in the midst of all his teen angst, Junior also has to deal with devastating loss. Alcohol is a big feature of this novel, because it plays such a principle role in so many Native American people's lives. Every day today, it still does. So I love this book because every character could be a stereotype, and they aren't. The alcoholics aren't just drinkers; Junior's Dad goes to the casino, drinks the money away, but he also shows up at every basketball game and event Junior is in, which is more than Junior realizes the white kids can say. Junior lives in excruciating poverty, but there is no bitterness or rage at the Federal Government system; he's not angry, he just wants to escape. And Junior deals with it honestly, openly, in this diary of his first year at Reardon High School, the white school off the reserve in town:
Overnight, I became a good player.
I suppose it had something to do with confidence. I mean, I'd always been the lowest Indian on the reservation totem pole - I wasn't expected to be good, so I wasn't. But in Reardon, my coach and other players wanted me to be good. They needed me to be good. They expected me to be good. And so I became good.
I wanted to live up to expectations.
I guess that's what it comes down to.
The power of expectations.......
Coach was thinking I would be an all-state player in a few years. He was thinking maybe I'd play some small-college ball.
It was crazy.
How often does a reservation Indian kid hear that?
How often do you hear the words "Indian" and "college" in the same sentence? Especially in my family. Especially in my tribe.
That is why I think this book is true. How often do we ever hear Indian and college in the same sentence? I know that up here in Canada, we have poor reserves where almost no one gets off, and richer ones where some of the kids go to university or college - which is always off-reserve in the cities. How often do you hear the words "drunk' and "Indian" together? All the time. Junior talks about it though: his Dad is a drunk, his Dad's best friend dies over a last drink in a bottle in a parking lot of a grocery store. This book is real, and it's honest. It could be a depressing novel, but it's not. It's funny. Heart-breakingly funny. And sad. I cried all the way through it. And I laughed. It's about this crazy mixed up world we all have to find our way in, no matter our race or colour. Arnie and his glasses are me when I was 10. I wish my brother had had this book growing up. I wish I had had this book growing up. I wish my parents who had adopted an Indian child had had it. I wish our entire Department of Indian Affairs employees would be forced to read it, starting with the Minister of Indian Affairs. Then I wish our Prime Minister would read it, so he would stop ignoring Indians and reserves, and start fixing some of the problems.
Mostly, I just want you, Gentle Reader, to get to know Junior, because when he says this near the end of his first year at Reardon High, I knew what he meant, and I wanted to sing along too:
"What are you laughing at?" Mrs Jeremy asked me.
"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 walked out of the classroom and felt like dancing and singing.
It all gave me hope. It gave me a little bit of joy.
And I kept trying to find the little pieces of joy in my life. That's the only way I managed to make it through all that death and change."
Isn't that how we all make our way through life? Finding the joy in the midst of death and change. Certainly that's been my year this year so far. So I love Arnie. He's a hero to cheer for.
That last quote also reminded me of Dewey. It's been almost a year now since she passed away. I'm glad this was a book she loved and recommended. To you, Dewey.
Also, because Dewey loved a ghost story as much as all of us do, here is today's Bluenose Ghosts excerpt:
...so I am pleased to have a very heartwarming event to relate [about angels]. Many years ago several little children were lost in the woods near Sambro and they had to sleep out all night in the dark. Their parents and friends were nearly frantic as they thought of the terrors that would beset them. The shore is very rocky here and the waves pounding in the darkness would frighten much older and stouter hearts. Imagine the astonishment of the searchers then when they found the children looking perfectly happy and untroubled. Afraid? They looked surprised at such a question. Why would they be afraid? They were all right, they said, because an angel had sat up with them all night.
Happy reading, everyone!