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!

23 comments:

Eva said...

Marvelous review Susan! Just one little thing-this isn't his first published novel. ;) I know that because I have Reservation Blues out from the library-it's his first published novel from 1996. :D

bermudaonion said...

This book is on my wish list. It sounds like I need to pick up a copy soon!

Susan said...

I think I meant to say his first novel for Young Adults! lol I know he's written short stories and the adult novel, which I now plan on reading soon. Have you read The True Diary? Or Reservation Blues yet?

bermudaonion: It's just come out in softcover, a trade paperback size. I wanted to get started on Dewey's challenge so I'd already got the book from the library when I saw the book at Chapters! Now I have to buy it too! Definitely one to reread again. I hope you enjoy it!

Kailana said...

I look forward to reading this one of these days! Glad you liked it!

Booklogged said...

Susan, this is a powerful review. I want to read this book and I'm sure my husband will. We live near the Ute Indian reservation and we both work with or have worked with many Indian youth. We often discuss the hopefulness so many experience on the res. Thank-you for bringing this book to my attention.

Table Talk said...

This sounds wonderful and I'm going to go searching for it but do you know what? I don't expect to find it, not in the UK anyway, because we wouldn't be interested in Indian stories, would we? If I'm wrong I will apologise, but I will be very much surprised if that is the case.

DesLily said...

great review Susan... it sounds like something i'd read when i need a break from fantasy .. to the wish list it goes

Gavin said...

Susan - Thank you for this wonderful review. Alexie is one of my favorite authors but I have yet to read this one. His adult novels and poetry are just wonderful and he is very funny in person if you ever get a chance to see him read.

Quirk Books said...

Hello Susan,

I'm with Quirk Books. I came across your blog and saw that you included Pride and Prejudice and Zombies on your RIP IV reading list. If you're already reading it, I hope you're enjoying it! I was wondering if you would like to be put on a mailing list to receive future news about the Quirk Classic series. In just a few weeks, we'll be announcing the next title.
If not, that's okay. We won't bug you again.

If you have any questions feel free to contact the publicity manager, Melissa Monachello, melissa_m@QuirkBooks.com.

Thank you for reading!

Best,

Jenn Pacheco

Cath said...

The little angel story is beautiful. Hope you're doing okay and that your stress has lessened.

Susan said...

Kailana: It's in the children's section, of all places! It took me ages to locate it. Chapters has them now, just released in softcover (yes, big hint there to read it!)

Booklogged: You must have met so many interesting people in your work, young and old! We have hoop dancers from the American south that come through here, but I don't know that I've met anyone from that reserve yet. The one thing that doesn't turn up in Absolute True Diary is a social worker. I'd really like to hear what you (and your husband) think when you've read the book, since you would have an understanding of the world it portrays. thank you for sharing that with me!

On an aside, have you gone to a powwow or met any elders? Do the youth have many traditional elders to help guide them, on the reserve?

Table Talk: I believe you! At my husband's work when we lived in York, I met someone who had been to Calgary, and still thought there were only a few Indians left alive! when I mentioned a few million Indian people surviving, he almost fell off his chair! although, I think if you check the bookstores, you might find the book is available over there. I found some Native Indian books here and there...let me know if you can find it or not.

Deslily: wow, I convinced you to add a book not about Star Trek or fantasy to your list! lol It is a lovely book, and it really will take your mind of everything but Arnie's world while you read it....

Gavin: I haven't had the chance to read anything else by him yet. Where did you get to hear him read, and from what? When I checked out his website (to do the post) he had a funny story from his blog about how useless Twitter is, and the Internet and blackberries and then he made fun of himself for being on the Internet so much! A great sense of humour, I think. I'll have to look for his poetry, thank you so much for telling me he had some.

Quirk: welcome, and hello. I'll come check your site out! thank you for leaving a comment :-D

Cath: The little angel story is very cute, isn't it? As for the stress, nope, not yet, but thanks for thinking of me and asking! friends do make it easier :-D

DesLily said...

Ahhh what you don't know is that my mother was adopted.. the lady who adopted her was a sioux indian directly related to chief sitting bull.. (married to an Englishman of all things!) that and I love "cowboy and indian" stuff.. so.. this still sounds good! lol

Debi said...

This has been on the wish list for a long while now...but with no urgency. Well, you just added the urgency. This was a wonderful, wonderful review, Susan.

mariel said...

I too read this book hoping it lived up to the hype and was so pleasantly surprised. I actually read it shortly after driving through Spokane Indian land and found it all the more poignant. I grew up one of a handful of girls from an ethnic minority in a very white middle class high school but I never had it that rough and consider myself very lucky. I particularly loved this book though because it felt very real, true and yet maintained humour and heart all the way through. Glad you liked it. I'll try and get my review up soon!

Susan said...

Deslily: well you could knock me over with a feather! (bad pun and not intended, but I am still trying to catch my breath!) I'll email you more....but sounds like you have quite a story there too. I think you will like this book, then, very definitely.

Debi: thank you!! I just loved it so much, and I really hope you do!

Mariel: Did you go through any of the reserves while you were in the US? Or just through some of the land? The book IS more poignant once anyone has seen a reserve, and realize the book still doesn't get all the hopelessness that sometimes lives there. That's not to say they are all bad; and many of the traditional teachings are found hidden away on reserves. But this book I think is an excellent view into this different way of life, that isn't so different at all.

From all I hear of Britain, you were very lucky to not to have had it really difficult/bad growing up a minority there. I know from my inlaws how much there is an undercurrent of racism in almost everthing there. I know when I have been on reserves, or in Central American countries where I stood out as a white person, it was very unnerving and really changed my world view, though having my brother be Indian did the most. I could see what the world appeared like to others who aren't white, when everything was geared towards white people mostly.

Thank you for sharing that with me, Mariel. And I'd be really interested to hear how you found the reserves, and the US in general. Was it what you expected, or different? What did you like the most?

Paula said...

Thanks for reviewing this book. You sold me. I just requested it from library. Thanks again...

Julia Smith said...

Your post has me teary, Susan. The last story is so touching.

And your nod to Dewey tugs my heart. I'm still working away at my Dewey Reading Challenge. I'm on the third of six books and watching the year tick down - but I will get them read before New Year's Eve! I've been so grateful to Dewey for introducing me to the books I've enjoyed thanks to her. The one I'm reading now is just incredible: Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian sounds like something I'd love.

Susan said...

Paula: I'm so glad I could help! I hope you enjoy it. I'll come visit you, I think this is your first time here. Welcome! thanks for leaving a comment!

Julia: I haven't read anything by Jonathan Safran Froer. But Dewey had pretty good taste when it comes to books.....I'm so glad you are enjoying the ghost stories! I'm enjoying picking them out. Plus it gives a good feel for Canadian ghosts and Maritime lore, doesn't it?
I hope you enjoy The Absolutely True Diary, too. As said, Dewey had great taste....

Laughing Stars said...

What a beautiful review -- you've inspired me to read this.

mariel said...

Things were different from me as I am a of mixed race and found it easy to not stand out at high school. It is as I have gotten older that I appreciate both sides of my heritage more and am thankful that I only received negative attitudes from people on a handful of occasions. I have noticed that there is an undercurrent of racial ignorance running through my life, rather than racial intolerance or hatred. People (even some that I know well) seem to be ignorant of other races rather than actively negative towards them...it takes place in offhand comments and attitudes rather than obvious vitriol, but is still disheartening.

I loved my trip through the states, most especially the Indian lands that I was able to visit. The highlights were spending time with some Lakota and Navajo people in South Dakota, after visiting Crazy Horse Mountain, and then driving through the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana. Both are places I would really like to revisit and spend more time, especially Montana as I fell in love with it! Which is amusing as I never really felt any pull towards the states, other than Hawaii. The natural landscape of the USA still fills me with awe though. Feel free to send me an email if you want to chat about it more! :)

Susan said...

Laughing Stars: Well, then my work is done! lol Thank you for the compliment, and I hope you do really like the book.

Mariel: Thank you for telling me more, I haven't been to that part of the US, but everything I see in pictures tells me I'd like to go. So you did visit some reserves, so you know that the book tells some things, and leaves a lot out, too, yet still captures an essence of modern-day Indian life. I'll email you more!

Jeane said...

I have never really read a book about natives on reservations, or what it's like to grow up there. This one's going on my list. Great review!

Susan said...

Jeane: thank you! I hope you enjoy it; I think you will.