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."

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