Sunday, September 9, 2007

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie
$11.55 at Amazon.com
ISBN: 0316013684
A delightful new novel about social inequality and becoming as man. The main character is a Native American Indian teenager. He's poor, he lives on a reservation, and is considered a traitor by most of his neighbors when he starts attending the "white man's" public school.
When the story begins, we get our first look inside the reservation. Everyone is poor; the schools, roads, and public infrastructure are pathetic. The kids get into trouble and the adults drink all the time. There are few jobs, no prospects for the future, and no one has money to move away: property in a forbidding wasteland is the only material asset these people have. It's rather bleak and hopeless.
After a temper tantrum in class, Arnold "Junior" Spirit realizes that his only route out of this depressing situation is to get a good education.
This takes our young hero to Reardon: a school outside the Indian Reservation, full of rich, white people. Like many minority groups, American Indians often consider it an insult when one of their own starts acting "too white". Junior soon finds himself out of place and unwanted in two worlds: the privileged halls of Reardon and the impoverished people on the "rez", his neighbors and friends.
It all sounds rather sad, but the book is filled with comics, like the one pictured to the left, by noted illustrator Ellen Forney. This keeps it a bit more upbeat, as the comics are quite funny.
Furthermore, the story's not all doom and gloom. Junior dates a girl at his school, plays for the basketball team, and deals with all the normal ups and downs of being a teenager. He's a hard-working, likable kid in spite of all the alienation and poverty.
Like most white Americans, I admit I don't know much about the conditions of Native American Indians. This book was a real eye-opener. Junior often had to walk 22 miles to and from school because his parents were without money to put gas in their car. When a group of his friends goes out to a diner, he's terrified because he has not a penny on him to pay for the meal.
The climax comes when Junior's basketball team plays against the team from the reservation. He must decide where his loyalties lie: with his tribe or his new white friends and the promising future they offer him.
Funny and enjoyable, but touching on some important issues. This book is sure to become a classic.

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