Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Review: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Title: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
Author: Sherman Alexie
Genre: Young Adult, Coming-of-Age
My Rating: ★★★★ ½

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

It’s a massive understatement to say life is hard for someone like Arnold Spirit, Junior. Being geeky and having hydrocephalus, epilepsy, stutter, lisp, and extra ten teeth made an outsider out of the aspiring fourteen-year-old cartoonist in an already outsider of a community. He’s used to the feel of punches and kicks on his body and the sharp stings of barbs on his heart; to take the edge off, he uses his humor and talent in the arts. “I belong to the Black-Eye-of-the-Month Club,” he jests when referring to the bullying. “I think the world is a series of broken dams and floods, and my cartoons are tiny little lifeboats,” he says about his drawings.

Like everybody else in the Spokane Indian Reservation, Junior acknowledges the fact that they are destined to be poor for the rest of their lives…but only at first. He has a lot of dreams, and deep inside he knows he will not reach them if he stays in the rez. One book-hurling incident and a heart-to-heart talk with a teacher later, Junior decides to change his fate: he’s going to study in an all-white school and start chasing his dreams, even if the odds are not in his favor. His choice pushes him up a step closer to being a social pariah. Everyone in the rez thinks he’s a traitor (an ‘apple’, red on the outside and white on the inside) and everyone in his new school thinks he’s different (he’s the only Indian in school…if you don’t count the mascot). Junior knows it will be a difficult journey, but he figures it’s better to search for a brighter future than to surrender to the bleak destiny he is expected to fulfill.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is one of the books I’ll recommend without second thoughts to people who want to have a good laugh…and perhaps a good cry. There are only a few novels that can make my spleen hurt from laughing too hard one minute and then break my heart the next, and this one is perhaps the best of them. Sherman Alexie nimbly handles the hilarious and poignant moments with his simple but powerful writing prowess, and by that I don’t exactly mean he uses an extraordinarily brilliant prose. I just admire how easy it is for him to make Junior sound like a genuine kid blathering about his uproarious mishaps after a long, exhausting school day. In short, Alexie makes the readers feel like they’re conversing with the characters instead of actually reading a book (which, if you ask me, is a sign of a really good book). Even if you don’t have a drop of Indian blood in your veins, finding a friend—or bits of yourself—in Arnold is a cinch. The conversational narrative helps in drawing in the readers closer to the storyline.

I heard this is Alexie’s first foray into the young adult genre, and honestly, it doesn’t show. He knows how a teenager’s mind works, he knows how a teenager’s mouth speaks, and he knows how to use this knowledge to reach out to all the teenagers inside of us.

Interspersed with the story are the cartoons (by Ellen Forney)Arnold draws. These do not only serve as complementary illustrations, they also help the narrative to flow smoothly and provide additional humor (and on some occasions, insightfulness) to the story. Take a look at these doodles:

cartoonbyJunior - Copy


I think the best thing about the book is how Alexie attacks serious issues like racism, poverty, alcohol and drugs usage, etc. with his sharp wit. In the process, he colors the prose with a lighter tone, but he never forgets to imply that these issues are grave enough to define the Native American life that exists even before the story starts. My favorite theme presented in it is the constant tug o’ war between individualism and collectivism, which Junior finds himself participating in while searching for his identity and place in the society. How do you continue to function in a community that sees you as a traitor? There’s nothing like watching a boy succeed in dealing with the heap of new burdens his own choice dropped on his shoulders, problems that would normally send an adult’s knees buckling. What’s fascinating here is that Junior doesn’t come off as precocious, like most kid geniuses in YA literature who hope to pass up as normal. He still sports the fragility of a kid, and he has a kind of optimism no one in the rez ever possessed.

While I cannot say all the characters are well-developed, I think a majority of them can leave a mark deep enough in the readers’ hearts to make them remarkable. I give Alexie a thumb up for portraying everyone in gray shades; no one is one hundred percent hero and no one is one hundred percent villain. They are justpeople, described with stark honesty in the eyes of a fourteen-year-old.

4.5 stars for an enjoyable read! I’m now considering reading more of Alexie’s works. :)

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