Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Courage and confusion

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie--The first thing you have to know when you read this book is that the author, Sherman Alexie, really is a Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian from the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington State. If you don't know that, the novel might seem absolutely incredible instead of absolutely true. As a matter of fact, many of the afflictions Sherman Alexie suffered as a child are used as the basis for Junior, the novel's main character. Born hydrocephalic (having "water on the brain") he undergoes surgery, which it is not certain he will survive. If he does survive, he is expected to be little more than a vegetable, given the potential brain damage.

Instead, Sherman not only survived, he thrived, as does Junior. I don't know if Sherman suffered the torments of his fellow Indians the way Junior does, but the same incident (in fact and fiction) catapults them off the reservation. In the novel, Junior goes to the first day of geometry class at the reservation school and is issued a textbook. When he opens the book, he sees his mother's maiden name as one of the students who has used that book. The realization that he and his fellow students are in a situation so poor that they are using thirty-year-old textbooks first crushes, then galvanizes Junior.

He transfers to the school in Reardan, the town outside the reservation. Until then, the only Indian at the school has been the mascot. Junior is received with about as much enthusiasm as he expects...none plus animosity. Events lead him to acceptance and even triumph as a student and basketball player.

Let me state for the record that there is more than a little rude and crude language, and that some subjects introduced are probably not appropriate for middle school. High schoolers, though, especially boys, will really appreciate The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

edited to add: This book is NOT on the SC Book Award Nominees list. I just like it.

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