Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Another Winner for Teens (and Everyone Else, Too)

Book Reviewed: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie

Once again, it took a teen book to remind me of the importance of literary fiction. The same friend who implored me to read The Book Thief (a new favorite) suggested Sherman Alexie's first teen novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Knowing the book had gotten rave reviews and already knowing that Alexie was a good writer, I decided to finally try it out. As usual, my friend was right.

The book only took me a handful of hours total to read, but it's impact burns long and slow. Funny and wise, fourteen-year-old Junior lives on the Spokane Indian Reservation, and he's being drowned alive there. In order to get a better education and eventually escape the cycle of misery he sees around him, he enrolls at a white high school 22 miles away. His family supports his decision, but they seem to be the only ones. His fellow reservation inhabitants feel abandoned and angry.

Junior ends up living a kind of double life, as a "white" student in a good school and as a "part-time Indian" at the reservation. Alexie handles this duplicity wonderfully. You feel for the poor kid, but you don't hate anyone around him. Somehow, Alexie manages to create a hard world without any outright villains. I was worried that Junior would arrive to the white school only to end up facing ridicule and racism. And he certainly gets some of that there, but eventually he ends up being well-liked by his classmates. He dates a popular girl, becomes a star on the varsity basketball team, and finds an ally in the school genius. He even becomes friends with a senior who terrorizes him his first few days; in a fantastic bonding scene, Junior says: "And Roger, being of kind heart and generous pocket, and a little bit racist, drove me home that night." How can you not love that sentence?!

Despite everything he gains, though, Junior still feels the negative reaction at home. His childhood best friend, an abused and angry kid named Rowdy, refuses to stay friends. Junior feels the loss acutely, and I couldn't help but feel it, too. Of course, this loss and its eventual resolution give the book a central thread that pays off very nicely in the end.

My friend thinks this book should be taught in high schools, and I couldn't agree more. During the first half, it's easy to be charmed by Junior's voice and Alexie's great characterizations. The second half builds on the goodwill of the first half by becoming emotionally devastating. Junior faces a serious of huge and terrible losses, each one more painful than the last. It's heartbreaking and painful, but Alexie plays it just right.

This is one of those seemingly-cliched coming of age stories that rings impossibly true. Junior comes out triumphant in the end, despite what he's been through, and the book ends on a nice, hopeful moment. I enjoyed the whole experience.

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