I hadn’t been a big fan of Sherman Alexie’s writing after studying excerpts of his work in school. But when a friend recommended his YA book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, I had to give him another try. I’ve always believed Alexie had important things to say, and while I’ve appreciated his points, his writing style gave me a headache. However, once I picked up The Absolutely True Diary, I simply couldn’t put it down. Not only did I read the entire book avidly in two sittings, but I began to think I should go back to some of the pieces I hadn’t liked years ago and try them again. It’s that good.
About the book: Arnold Spirit, an aspiring comic artist and known on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington state simply as Junior, is a 14 year-old boy who comes up against the expected path for the rest of his life and and decides to fight for something more. He faces the poverty, discrimination, and alcoholism that affects most of the families on the rez, but Junior also has unique struggles related to brain damage that began for him at birth. He learns how closely love and hate are related in his closest friendships. An outcast in every sense, Junior meets opposition from every side when he decides to work towards leaving the rez. Even the people who love him don’t quite know how to show their support. Being a teen is hard enough, but can Junior manage to prepare for adulthood as a brain-damaged Indian teen whose tribesmen believe he’s betraying them by seeking a different life?
“I feel important with a pen in my hand. I feel like I might grow up to be somebody important. An artist. Maybe a famous artist. Maybe a rich artist.”
This is a book written for teens, but appropriate for a much wider audience. In fact, I’m not sure I would have appreciated it as much as a teen as I did reading it this winter. There are themes of overcoming adversity and persisting through challenges that are encouraging for younger readers, but having seen and learned a little more of the world than I had been aware of at 14, I was much more receptive to the underlying details of the harshness of life on a reservation. The Absolutely True Diary is an eye-opening experience for readers of all sorts.
“And no matter how much you learn, you just keep on learning there is so much more you need to learn.”
I want to say this is a book for all ages, but I would advise a little maturity for Absolutely True Diary Readers, despite the adolescent (but highly entertaining) graphics. This book includes mature language and references, and some of the aspects of Indian life, while very real for the young characters of this book, should be handled responsibly. There are many alcohol-related deaths on Junior’s reservation, there’s a child who is physically harmed by his parents, there are physical altercations and bullying in schools, among other details. While I think it is important for readers–especially young readers–to understand that these darker parts of life exist, and that living with them is certainly much more difficult than reading about them, they can be hard to stomach even in fiction. That said, for as many negative aspects of the world this book addresses, it also acknowledges some pretty great parts of life too, like friendship, family, a quality education, perseverance, dealing with grief, and much more.
“If you let people into your life a little bit, they can be pretty damn amazing.”
While this book shows a little of what it’s like to be a young Indian, it also shows a lot of what it’s like to be a teen. Although the lessons may not specifically apply, the morals are broad and far-reaching. Alexie teaches not how to be a decent Indian, but how to be a decent human being. You never know what the people around you are going through, and the best way to deal with any situation is to be the positive influence in it. The smallest actions can be far-reaching and make a world of difference, whether you’re a 14 year-old reader, a 24 year-old, or even an 84 year-old.
“Do you understand how amazing it is to hear that from an adult? Do you know how amazing it is to hear that from anybody? It’s one of the simplest sentences in the world, just four words, but they’re the four hugest words in the world when they’re put together. You can do it.”
My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This book was such a surprise for me. I’d thought I didn’t like Alexie’s writing much, and I’d thought I wasn’t in the mood for the sort of YA book with drawings in it, but I absolutely adored this story from the very beginning. The humor and willingness with which Arnold “Junior” Spirit approaches the battles in his life make the difficult topics covered in this book manageable and compelling. The combination of heavy material and a light narrative tone full of optimism and strength keep the reader learning without becoming overwhelmed. I’m so glad this book was recommended to me, and I can’t recommend it highly enough for readers of all but the youngest age brackets.
- If you like the style of middle grade / YA books that use pictures as a necessary part of the story, I’ve read bits and pieces of James Patterson’s Treasure Hunter series with my younger brother and I find them entertaining. Four very unique siblings travel the world on a ship, searching for their missing parents, dodging troublemakers, and taking the world by storm.
- If you’re interested in reading more about the struggles of modern Native Americans, try the adult novel Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko. Although I don’t recall which tribe this book follows, it shares many of the adversities we see in The Absolutely True Diary–discrimination, poverty, alcoholism, etc. It’s another heart-tugging educational read that’ll change the way you see the world.
Coming up next: I’m currently reading (and preparing to review) Charlie Jane Anders’ new magical realism book, All the Birds in the Sky. Our main characters in this book are unpopular children with unique struggles that I’m finding surprisingly comparable to the way Arnold/Junior is presented in The Absolutely True Diary. Stay tuned for more specifics about this magical world and its peculiar inhabitants.
What’s your first book of 2017? I hope your year is off to as grand a start as mine!
The Literary Elephant