Book Review: Part-Time Indian Creates Full-Time Concerns

One thing you can count on, and that is if a book is banned or in any way censored I’m going to read it. So it should come as no surprise that I have always wanted to read the young adult novel The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. This weekend I finally got around to it (and no, it was a coincidence that I read it during a holiday wherein Americans celebrate a fake feast with a people against whom it committed genocide).

The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is one of the most banned books in America. According to Wikipedia, among the book’s controversial themes “include cultural insensitivity, provocative and explicit language, scenes that are sexually explicit or anti-family, anti-Christian content, alcoholism, and depictions of bullying and violence, among others.” Despite these concerns, the book was well received by critics and won the 2007 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.

Add to the mix that author Alexie was caught up in the #MeToo movement over the last year, with a reported 10 women having gone public with sexual harassment allegations against the author who later made a public apology for his “poor decisions.” This certainly complicates things and opens the whole “can you love the art while despising the artist” argument. I’ll nip that question in the bud right away by saying I can generally separate the two, enjoying the work while simultaneously condemning the artist. I loved  The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and I also enjoyed Smoke Signals, the film adaptation of his short story collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. 

I’m a sucker for a good coming of age story, and The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a great one. The novel is semi-autobiographical and concerns a nerdy Native American teenager (Arnold “Junior” Spirit) who lives on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington State but because he longs for a better education and an escape from constant ridicule by his native schoolmates he decides to transfer to the nearby off-reservation white school. For this he is ostracized by his native community but also finds it difficult (at first) to fit in at the all-white school. In a great bit of true comic irony, the Reardon mascot is the Indian, so Junior says he is one of only “two” Indians at the school.

Alexie does a wonderful job in the novel addressing native themes with openness and honesty. Alcoholism and poverty are ever present, as are racism and Native American stereotypes. The white kids don’t know what to make of Junior, and truthfully Junior isn’t sure what to make of them. The unwritten rules of the reservation don’t seem to apply in the white school so Junior’s sense of equilibrium is thrown off. Back on the reservation he is treated like a traitor for leaving, yet Junior wants to hold on to his native roots not abandon them. 

Ultimately the novel is a story of personal growth for all involved. I’m not giving anything away by reporting that all of the characters learn valuable lessons about life. But more importantly, it is the reader that learns the most. Alexie doesn’t pull any punches as he discusses life on the reservation for his friends and family. Living on the reservation offers little in the way of prosperity for its inhabitants, with poverty and alcoholism — and as a result, death — an ever-present feature. Readers, and young readers especially, need to understand the plight of Native Americans in our country so we can hopefully learn from our mistakes and move the country forward with more justice. Not that we’ve done a good job to date, but I suspect the more young people learn about this situation the better chances we have for a egalitarian future.

One thing I loved about the novel is that Alexie doesn’t try to teach the lessons of the story by sugar-coating the truth. Too often young adult novels don’t speak the language of teens, and ironically it is exactly this fact that causes the book to continually be banned. Junior is real because he is based on Alexie, but mostly because he talks and acts like a real 14-year-old kid. He is crude and sexually explicit. He talks about boners and masturbation and he and his friends use inappropriate terms to refer to each other’s masculinity. Should we ban the book because he uses a bad word? Of course there are no bad words, only bad intentions. Using the word “faggot” to dis your friends is something that teen boys do (and yes, they shouldn’t) but that doesn’t mean you can’t incorporate reality into a novel. Junior is a flawed character as we all are, but he’s a realistic character. I wonder if some of the same politically correct people who want to ban this book for its use of gay slurs decried the banning of Tom Sawyer for it’s use of the “n” word? Art needs to be real to be effective.

The best way to learn from Alexie’s book is to read it and discuss it, not to ban it. If I were assigning this book in a class you bet I’d have a class discussion about the use of derogatory terms for gays — that’s called teaching. I’d also have a discussion about why Reardon High School should change its mascot (yes, it is really still the school’s mascot). And why poverty is rampant on reservations. And why alcoholism is so prevalent among Native Americans. And why young Native Americans are torn between two worlds. Discussing questions like these is what’s missing from American schools and why we are still so divided as a country.

The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a fun read with a lesson for everyone. I don’t typically read young adult novels, though like The Book Thief by Markus Zusak it’s definitely suitable for adults as well as teens. And also like The Book Thief, The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is apparently being made into a movie with Hugh Jackman among others  signed on as a producer. I’m looking forward to seeing the story on the big screen.

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