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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Book Review: The Water Knife

lakemead

Spoiler Alert: this review is part book review and part political rant about climate change!

I love a good dystopian story. We’re binge-watching The Man in the High Castle right now and we have “enjoyed” The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu. But the Allies didn’t lose WWII and while misogyny is experiencing a comeback in these highly charged political times, I really don’t see either of those scenarios taking place anytime soon. Dystopian stories are supposed to be warnings or lessons about what might have been or could be. Dystopia is fine as long as it’s a vision of an extreme and unlikely world. This is the reason The Water Knife is such a terrifying novel — not only is the nightmare scenario of the novel possible, but we’re also actually pretty close to it becoming a reality sooner rather than later. The world in The Water Knife is disturbing and it takes place in the city I call home. Yep, like it or not, Phoenix is ground zero in a world where water is scarce. Hey, it’s a desert after all and as many people have noted, it’s a monument to man’s arrogance.

The Water Knife is a 2015 novel by Paolo Bacigalupi. It takes place in the near future, where climate change has devastated the Southwestern United States. Phoenix has become a wasteland of abandoned suburban homes and a weigh station of sorts for climate refugees from Texas and other states who are hoping to find a new life in Los Angeles or San Diego or Las Vegas, where water rights have provided enough for American refugees to live more comfortably. But California and Southern Nevada have closed off their borders to stem the tide of climate refugees and Phoenix has in effect returned to its lawless, cowboy Western roots. Oh, and the American abandonment of Texas and Arizona along with other drought-ravaged states has enabled the region to become a haven for drug cartels who have long ago taken over Mexico and now moved in to run the former American territories and serve as “coyotes” that provide passage across the border. Add to this the “oasis” buildings built by the Chinese to house political and corporate bigwigs and workers which tower over the poor residents of Phoenix who now live in shanty towns built up around pay-for-water wells. Don’t worry though, Phoenicians can get some drinking water by peeing into a “ClearSac” which can provide a little “clean” water. So, it’s not all bad.

The Phoenix in The Water Knife is pretty awful. Think Mad Max meets Waterworld. But is it really far-fetched, or are we truly headed toward this future?

Let’s put aside climate change and its causes for argument’s sake. What do we know about water in Phoenix? The Colorado River typically accounts for nearly half of the city’s water supply. The water in the Colorado River comes from snowmelt in Colorado, and a huge portion of that water sits in Lake Mead on the Nevada/Arizona border and Lake Havasu on the California/Arizona border.  More than 30 million Americans across seven states — California, Arizona, Nevada, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico — rely on this water for survival. Yes, survival.

Now here’s something I learned in the novel. The water rights for the Colorado River are not equal. The Colorado River Compact divides the river basin into two areas, the upper division (comprising Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming) and the lower division (Nevada, Arizona, and California). The states in the upper basin have higher priority to this water than the states in the lower division. That’s not too bad as long as there’s enough water for everyone. Ah, but there’s the rub my parched friends.

In the past 13 years, Colorado’s snow has been melting at a faster rate, vanishing earlier and earlier each year. Lake Mead, which reached its highest point ever in 1983 at  1,225.44 feet, today — Saturday, October 27, 2018 — Lake Mead sits at 1,078.84 feet.

So what? If the lake levels dip too low, Arizona could lose about a seventh of its annual water allotment to the Central Arizona Project, which supplies much of the state’s water. What’s “too low”? If the water level falls to 1,075 feet above sea level, a shortage declaration would be issued and cuts would be scheduled. Wait, what? That’s like three feet from today’s levels. Yep, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said last month that there’s a 57 percent chance that Lake Mead’s water levels would be so dismal in 2020 that Arizona and Nevada would face cutoffs. If Lake Mead’s water level falls below 1,050 feet, Arizona would lose an additional 80,000 acre-feet of water.

The same U.S. Bureau of Reclamation reported in August 2018 that it predicts Lake Mead will dip just below the threshold to 1,075 feet as early as May 2019. At the beginning of 2020, Lake Mead levels are predicted to be at approximately 1,070 feet and then predicted to fall to as low as 1,053 feet in the summer of 2020.

The Environmental Defense Fund recently wrote: “Arizona is running out of time to figure out new ways of conserving and creatively sharing an increasingly scarce water supply. We need to collaborate now in order to avoid catastrophic and economically destabilizing impacts in the very near future.”

It’s not like nobody has been talking about this, or that the media has dropped the ball. Just last month Joanna Allhands of the Arizona Republic wrote an opinion piece with the headline: A Water Shortage is in Arizona’s Future, Like it or Not.

The Water Knife is a cautionary tale told with a big slice of reality. Which is why I think it’s terrifying. I’m an environmentalist, but I’m not Chicken Little. I mean, the sky may actually be falling. But will things get as bad as Bacigalupi would have us believe? Unfortunately, I don’t think we’re far off. You can choose to believe we’ll come up with some kind of magic pill to keep us from heading over the falls, but given the current political climate and our inability to agree on even the basic fundamentals of how a society should run, what makes you think we’ll be civil to each other when the water starts to dry up?

It’s a fact that Las Vegas has water rights over Arizona. And California, with the fifth largest economy in the world, has far more power than Arizona and its tap into the Colorado River is above Arizona’s. Somebody is going to lose this battle and Phoenix is not in a good position to win.

9780385352871_custom-b9151d61a5c6869bf30190fa56d69a11c7c8bcd9-s400-c85Bacigalupi’s vision is dark. In the novel, the powers that be in Southern Nevada and California do whatever it takes to keep their communities from drying up. They protect the water with troops and drones. They protect their borders. They make deals with shady characters from cartels to the Chinese. They cheat and steal. They kill. They ruthlessly cut off water from one community to save another. People a lot smarter than I believe future wars will be fought not over oil, but over water.

The Water Knife is fiction, but it leaves the reader with a lot to think about. Especially if the reader, like me, lives in a city of almost two million people in the middle of one of the hottest deserts on Earth in which most of its water gets delivered via a single canal that stretches 336 miles from Lake Havasu to Central Arizona.

In the novel, the Central Arizona Project canal has already been compromised. But it really wouldn’t even matter if there’s very little water in the lower division anyway. And say what you will about climate change, facts are facts and when it comes to the Colorado snowpack the proof is in the runoff. The shit is already hitting the fan and it’s probably only going to get worse — and there’s not much we can do about it.

Given all that, the Phoenix of The Water Knife may be inevitable. My son thinks we should get out of Dodge now before things start to get ugly. He makes a compelling argument. At best, we have a few years until by law we have to start rationing. After that, with no solution in sight, people and businesses will start to leave. Who is going to buy your house? Why would a company relocate to Phoenix? Seriously, before we run out of water to drink it’s more likely our economy will tank. Maybe we should sell our house now and move to a more climate change friendly environment (Portland anyone?).

With all that as the backdrop, I still have to say The Water Knife is a great novel. The characters are believable and several are downright relatable. Lucy is a tough journalist trying to tell the story of what Phoenix has become without getting herself killed by the cartels or the powerful people fighting over water rights. Angel is a former criminal turned “water knife” who does the heavy-handed bidding of the Southern Nevada Water Authority and its ruthless leader who will literally do anything to keep Las Vegas from going dry — including killing and stealing. Maria is a refugee from Texas trying to survive in the Valley of the Sun by doing whatever it takes, including selling her body for a hot shower and enough money for a little water to drink. The lives of these three characters, each with their own motivations, collide around a long-lost document that could change the water rights of the Southwest forever.

I admit, despite the overall theme of the novel, it was fun to see Phoenix woven into the story like a main character. Bacigalupi certainly did his homework about Phoenix and its water history. Central Arizona Project, Phoenix suburbs like Chandler, Tempe and Mesa, even the Target on Elliott Road just south of Guadalupe turns up in the story. It was easy to imagine several of the scenes taking place in Gilbert or Ahwatukee.

Another interesting “character” that shows up in the novel is Marc Reisner’s  1993 nonfiction book Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water. Reisner’s book is read a lot in academic circles, and it takes a historical approach to understand how cities came to be built in the Arizona desert in the first place and why maybe, just maybe, they were doomed from the start because the water was never going to last forever. I haven’t read Cadillac Desert, and frankly, I’m afraid to now, but I will definitely get to it once I get over my anxiety after reading The Water Knife.

One thing I will say: I’m never going to take water for granted again!

Further reading:

The cost of drought: Less water from Lake Mead in 2020, higher rates for consumers

Arizona cancels water meeting amid difficult negotiations on Colorado River deal

Cost of drought: Less water from Lake Mead in 2020, higher rates

Phoenix Prepares For The Worst Amid Looming Colorado River Shortage

Colorado River Drought Cuts in Arizona Would Be More Severe Than Expected

Review: Educated by Tara Westover

9780399590504_custom-e037ecf3180a26cdc3475e88f65cb5d2eb5a0a1f-s400-c85One of the reasons I joined a book club earlier this year was because I tend to read the same kinds of books (literary fiction or science/social/political narrative nonfiction) and I thought it would be great to open myself up to new books. While I certainly haven’t loved or even liked some of the books chosen by my peers, it’s always a good idea to open your mind. This month my book club read Educated: A Memoir and frankly I never would have read this book had it not been selected by a member of my book club. And that would have been a shame because this was a wonderful memoir.

Tara Westover’s story is remarkable and so well written. I’ve read my share of books and seen movies about people who have overcome great odds in life (Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken comes to mind), but few have come from such an unassuming and surprising protagonist. In this case, the narrator in question is a young woman who grew up isolated from mainstream society in the Idaho mountains. Tara Westover’s parents raised her on the family homestead with no formal schooling, no visits to doctors, no significant interaction with the world outside her home or the nearby small town made up of mostly members of the LDS church. To say she led an isolated life is an understatement — something she reiterated in a TV interview I watched online after finishing this book by sharing that when she arrived at Brigham Young University at age 17 she thought Europe was a country and she hadn’t heard of the Holocaust. She’d also never seen a doctor, wasn’t immunized and didn’t even have a birth certificate until she was nine years old.

But hers is a story of survival more than isolation. Her father was a survivalist who didn’t trust the government or modern medicine. He was a religious zealot who ruled his family with an iron fist and treated his children as employees at his only means of income, his scrap metal business and junkyard. Westover’s mother was an herbalist, who treated any medical condition with homegrown “tinctures” and salves. She was an untrained midwife who delivered children across the community and frankly it’s amazing she didn’t accidentally maim or kill anyone. She “survived” a terrible car accident that probably caused a brain injury. She treated one son’s terrible burns from a fire with home remedies and “healed” her husband’s life-threatening explosion injuries with the same salves and herbs. And despite being a strong-willed woman, she deferred to her powerful husband at every turn.

Westover was also physically and emotionally abused by one of her older brothers, and her recollections of these incidents were heartbreaking. In fact, when she discovered her older sister had also been mercilessly abused by the same sibling and the two sisters decided to confront their parents about the attacks, her sister’s eventual decision to back off the claims led to Westover’s near-complete estrangement from her parents and several siblings that still remains. Her mother agreed to back the girls, but also eventually changed sides and demured to the patriarch of the family.

All of this abuse is the backdrop for a remarkable journey into mainstream society for Westover that began with the encouragement of one older brother to try to go to college despite never having set foot in a formal classroom and having been “homeschooled” with very little beyond religion. Westover purchased a few books and taught herself enough algebra and grammar to get a good enough score on the ACT to get admitted to BYU and that launched a career in academia that eventually led to degrees from BYU, Harvard and ultimately a Ph.D. from Cambridge. That is quite a feat for someone who didn’t go to a proper school until she was 17.

Early in the book, Westover wrote that her memoir was not a story about Mormonism. I heard her say in an interview she wanted to nip that narrative in the bud and that she has no hard feelings about the religion in which she was brought up. That said, she recently wrote that she is no longer a member of the LDS church and describes herself as agnostic. This is important to the underlying theme of her story, and given my personal feelings about religion, this is the point in the review where you might expect me to rail on the LDS church and religion in general. But I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’m going to rail on ignorance because that is what truly is at the heart of Westover’s upbringing and the reason why I think her scholarly attainments are notable.

Westover’s father was indeed a religious fanatic and that played a significant role in her life up until she left for college. Her mother also put religion before knowledge. It is that lack of knowledge that led to her unique childhood. No school because they feared knowledge. No doctors because they feared science. No birth certificates because they feared the government. Which came first for the Westover clan — religion or ignorance? I think for the Westover’s it was ignorance. And fear. And a little psychological dysfunction. Val (or Gene as she called her father in the book) was and is a classic paranoid schizophrenic who used religious text to justify what he didn’t understand. Even Westover herself said she didn’t think her father meant any harm, but rather he didn’t know any better. And that right there is the trouble with America in 2018.

Ignorance leads to hate. Ignorance leads to anti-science. Ignorance leads to misogyny. Ignorance leads to fear of the other. Ignorance leads to voting for Donald Trump.

Val Westover isn’t that unique. His views are extreme, but he’s not that different from people who don’t “believe” in climate change, or who think Mexicans are rapists and murderers so we need to build a wall to protect ourselves. Tara Westover’s story is extreme, but she’s not that far off from a child who is raised in a household that doesn’t trust the New York Times because their parents claim it’s fake news. There are a lot of Tara Westovers in America in 2018. Ignorance is the enemy.

Tara Westover overcame ignorance out of sheer will. She is a survivor in the sense that she transcended the ignorance that she was force-fed. She will break the cycle going forward and raise educated children. She should be celebrated for this and her book is a good reminder that we have a long way to go in America.

And that’s how you turn a book about a survivalist family in the hills of Idaho into an anti-Trump diatribe. 🙂