Sunday, March 8, 2015

Banned Book #8: "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian"

by Pa Rock

Sherman Alexie is one of the finest writers working in America – or anywhere – today.   His novels, short stories, and poetry often depict life on Alexie’s home turf, the Spokane Indian Reservation, and his writings are peopled with characters who are desperately real.

In “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” Alexie created an alter-ego,  Arnold Spirit (a.k.a. “Junior) who lived on the Spokane “Rez.”   Junior was fourteen-years-old at the time of this story, and he had already been to forty-two funerals in his relatively short lifetime.   He noted in his diary that most of the deaths were the result of drinking, and he constantly struggled with the impact that alcohol had on his family, friends, and his tribe.

During the span of just a few pages in this novel, Junior chronicled the death of his beloved grandmother who never had a drink in her life but was run down by a drunk Indian as she was walking home from a powwow, the death of his dad’s best friend who was shot in the face and killed in a deadly disagreement with another Indian man over who should get the last drink in the bottle, and the deaths of his older sister and her husband who were passed out drunk in their small trailer and burned to death when someone at their party turned on a hotplate to warm some soup and then forgot to turn it off.

Junior also understood how poverty shaped the lives of him and his friends.  Sometimes there was food to eat, sometimes there wasn’t.  Sometimes there was gas for his father to take him to school, and sometimes he had to walk and hitchhike.  Some years there was money for Christmas gifts, and other years they had to do without – while his father slumped off in shame to get drunk on what little money they did have.

But as imperfect as Junior’s parents might have been – and his father was plenty imperfect – Junior also understood that they loved him.  He remarked in the diary that his parents were always in attendance at any school function or game in which he was a participant,  and he also noted that some of the white parents (at a school he would later attend) would routinely skip their kids’ programs and games.  While life did not deal Junior the best of hands, he recognized the good things and did not wallow in self-pity.

Junior was born with too much cerebral spinal fluid on the brain and had to undergo surgeries and special care as a child.  After that rough start, however, he developed into an intelligent boy who liked to read, write, draw cartoons, and play basketball.  When he was fourteen he was challenged by a teacher to look beyond the Rez and make something of himself.  It was at that point that Junior decided, almost on a whim, that he wanted to leave the Rez school and travel twenty-two miles down the road to a school that was almost entirely white.

It was the move to the new school, Reardan, that led Junior to regard himself as a “part-time” Indian.   He was Indian when he was on the Rez, and white when he was at Reardan.     Many of his friends on the Rez, such as his best friend, Rowdy, turned their backs on him and regarded him as a traitor to his Indian ethnicity, while, as the outsider at Reardan, it took considerable effort on Junior’s part for him to begin to fit in.

One develops the notion while reading this amazing novel, that Sherman Alexie, a former Rez Indian who now has a very successful life in Seattle, knows that of which he writes.

“The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” has been banned in some locales and schools probably due in small part because of casual teen discussion of sexual matters like masturbation and erections.  But I suspect that some seek to keep others from reading the book because it starkly portrays the racism that original Americans often have to endure, and it shows the overwhelming poverty in which they must survive.  The characters are wonderful, warm, and compassionate, but their circumstances are spare and bleak.

Like everything that Sherman Alexie writes, “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” is a masterpiece, one that everyone who thinks they understand the breadth and scope of what America really is, in total, should take the time to read.    It is, like many other great works of literature, a mirror on who we are as a people - and like many mirror-images, it can be very disturbing.

And great literature, like clear insight, is often disturbing.

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