Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Indian Summer, Part One

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, art by Ellen Forney, Little, Brown and Company, 2009, 288 pages, ISBN: 0316013692

This past summer, for his eighth-grade summer reading, my son read two books by Sherman Alexie, one of my favorite authors. I discovered Sherman Alexie about a year ago while browsing through the "School Reading" section of my local library. The book I pulled off the shelf was The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.I loved the book and quickly read through the Alexie canon. With humor and heartbreaking honesty, Alexie writes about the modern Indian experience, which includes extreme poverty and killer alcoholism.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Alexie's first young adult novel, is the story of 14-year-old Junior, a bright, but poor, Spokane Indian living on a reservation.  Born with several medical problems, he feels like a "retard" and is bullied by nearly everyone on the "rez." The one exception is his best friend Rowdy, but their friendship is tested when Junior, seeking a better education and future, decides to leave the reservation school and attend an all-white school 22 miles from home.  Junior finds himself stuck between two worlds.  The Indians are angry at his perceived desertion, and the whites do no accept him.  To cope with his isolation he plays basketball and draws cartoons, which enhance his diary with perceptive humor.  Junior focuses on befriending Gordy, the class genius.  Before long he's also friends with Roger, the school's best athlete, and the beautiful Penelope.

Junior falls hard for Penelope and emails his friend Rowdy for some advice.  Rowdy emails back:  "Hey, Asshole, I'm sick of Indian guys who treat white women like bowling trophies.  Get a life."  Junior turns to Gordy.  After doing some research, Gordy tells him that people care more about white women than anyone else on Earth.  "So what does that mean?" asks Junior.  Gordy replies, "I think it means you're just a racist asshole like everybody else."

The whites either hate the Indians or revere them just for being Indians, and the Indians hate the whites and worst of all the Indians hate themselves.  The exception is his grandmother, tolerant of all people.  Junior says all Indians used to be like his grandmother:  they celebrated weird people.  After the white people came with their Christianity and fears of anyone different, Indians became "just as judgmental and hateful as any white people."  Junior tells Gordy that the Indians "call me an apple because they think I'm red on the outside and white on the inside."  Gordy says--and this is the theme of the book in a nutshell--"life is a constant struggle between being an individual and being a member of the community."

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Adventures in Middle School Reading

My quest is this:  to find appropriate books for middle-school students that are fun and adventurous enough to keep them reading, while at the same time challenging enough to develop their reading skills and build their vocabularies.

A note to the sensitive and squeamish:  I am not afraid of colorful language or a little violence, nor will I cater to censorship.  One of the books I plan to review has been banned from one school's summer reading list.  Today's book contains plenty of action and some violence.

True Grit by Charles Portis, Overlook TP, 2007, 256 pages, ISBN: 0316013684

In 1969 True Grit was a movie starring Marion Robert Morrison aka John Wayne.  The Coen Brothers version, reputed to be truer to the book than the John Wayne movie, will star Jeff Bridges and be in theaters this Christmas.  I'm looking forward to the Coen-Brothers movie, though I suspect it will earn an "R" rating, making it off limits for most middle-school students.  For them there is the book.  First published in 1968 by Simon & Schuster as one of their "books for young readers," True Grit features one of the gutsiest young people in all of literature.

Mattie Ross, fourteen years old, is on a mission to avenge her father's death.  In her words, "a coward going by the name of Tom Chaney shot my father down in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and robbed him of his life and his horse and $150 in cash money plus two California gold pieces."  Chaney has fled to Indian Territory, and Mattie aims to follow him and bring him back to Arkansas for hanging.  She knows she'll need help, so she asks the sheriff, "Who is the best marshal?"  Given the choice of three:  a good tracker, a fair man, and a cruel man for whom "fear don't enter into his thinking," Mattie chooses the last.  One-eyed Rooster Cogburn, Civil War veteran, gambler, heavy drinker, and former thief, he's the one Mattie determines has true grit enough for the task she's undertaking and hires him to lead her into Indian Territory to track down her father's killer.

Though Rooster is a gripping character, Mattie is the hero of the book.  In her own words she is a girl "with brains and a frank tongue."  Mattie rarely lets anyone get the best of her; one of the funniest episodes in the book is when Mattie outplays Stonehill, the owner of the stable where her father's horse had been kept and from where it had been stolen by Chaney.  She holds Stonehill responsible and extracts $325 from him for the horse.  Mattie Ross is the anti-Laura Ingalls, that other girl of children's literature who spends time in Indian Territory in Little House on the Prairie.  Whereas Laura is childish, dependent, and at the mercy of her father's whims, Mattie is capable, independent, and in charge of her own destiny.  My eighth-grade son wrote in his reader response to this book, "A girl that can shoot and kill people and shake it off is a tough customer."  In short, Mattie's got true grit.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Fruitcake Time Again

It's that time of year again:  the fruitcake catalogs and brochures are coming in the mail.  Gethsemani Farms Trappist Monks bake a delicious booze-soaked cake, one of which my husband orders every Christmas.  I used to turn up my nose at those fruitcakes, but after a few years of them being around for the holidays and feeling a little adventurous, I cut off a piece, picked out the raisins, and sampled one.  Not bad.  In fact, it was pretty good.

It was last year at fruitcake time that I decided I would start a blog.  First I had to learn all about blogging, so I read The Huffington Post Complete Guide to Blogging and The Everything Blogging Book.Then I had to decide what I would write about in my blog.  This is where it got a little tricky.  I knew I wanted to review books for middle-school readers.  But I also wanted to blog about writing.  And movies and old television programs.  Maybe music.  Occasionally cooking.  So, like a fruitcake, my blog will have a little bit of everything, and like a Texas fruitcake heavy on the pecans, my blog will be heavy on the middle-school book reviews.  At least that's the plan.

So before another year goes by and the fruitcake beckons again, I begin my blog.