The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, art by Ellen Forney
Review by Lauren
Source: personal copy; all opinions are my own
Official Summary: Sherman Alexie tells the story of Junior, a budding cartoonist growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Determined to take his future into his own hands, Junior leaves his troubled school on the rez to attend an all-white farm town high school where the only other Indian is the school mascot. Heartbreaking, funny, and beautifully written, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which is based on the author's own experiences, coupled with poignant drawings that reflect the character's art, chronicles the contemporary adolescence of one Native American boy as he attempts to break away from the life he thought he was destined to live.
Review: I think books that focus on people in other countries or that are part of different cultures can be really interesting and this was no exception. I've been wanting to read Alexie's YA debut for years now and I was finally given the chance when a book club I go to every now and then chose it as its May pick. I dug out the copy I've had for awhile and started reading! This was a quick read that really makes you think.
Junior is a gawky teenager who was born with water in his brain, which means he has brain damage and sometimes suffers seizures. Throughout the book, art by Ellen Forney (though said to be Junior's own artwork), illustrates Junior's thoughts and stories. When explaining everything "wrong" with him, Junior drew this-
The photo shows that he also has glasses, a stutter and a lisp, and that he had ten more teeth than normal, which had to be removed when he was a bit older. Now we get fourteen year old Junior whose parents and grandma believe he is capable of better things than living on the reservation. It isn't until his teacher pushes him to get out that he decided to transfer from the "rez" school to the all-white school about twenty miles awhile. His family agrees, but the other Native Americans on the reservation, including Junior's best friend Rowdy, are not happy about it and taunt him.
He still decides to go though, as he is told to get a better education and see the rest of the world beyond the reservation, where many Native Americans become stuck, including his own parents. Junior thinks about his parents and how they could have become something great too if they were pushed to do better.
Because of that and because his own sister has seemingly given up on her own dreams, Junior faces the all-white school and tries to make it work so he can move forward in life. Things don't start off great, but they do get better and it's wonderful seeing Junior's growth.
Junior is a regular teenage boy in terms of dealing with school, family, girls, and friends. He likes to play basketball, though he never saw himself as great. He likes girls, but knows people won't like him crushing on a white girl. Beyond this though, there is also the continual thoughts and conversations regarding other Native Americans on the reservation. Junior discusses how people drink a lot (including his own dad), how some parents are abusive (including Rowdy's dad), how these men and women find themselves stuck in one place and their victories are small compared to many of the kids going to the new all-white school. Many of those boys and girls will grow up and experience the world, but the kids on the reservation have very little opportunity beyond marrying another Native Americans and drinking away their dreams.
While aspects of the book might sound a bit sad, the book is definitely not. Junior has a great voice and it's fascinating to see the way he views people who are Native Americans and people who are not. There were many quotes throughout the book that really made me think, and the drawings definitely added a lot to Junior's narrative!
And finally, to end, I thought I'd share one of the quotes I really liked:
It sucks to be poor, and it 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.