Saturday, June 29, 2024

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie

Yeah, I know, it's not exactly a new book.  In fact, it's been over seventeen years since it came out.  So, sue me.  I'd claim that it just slipped through the cracks, but I think at the time I thought the book was overhyped and just couldn't get into it.  Plus, it was about a boy and I read very very few of those books.  It's not so much that I hate male protagonists, but I always find the profanity-heavy, gross-out humor, and violence inherent in books about adolescent boys to be either off-putting or too close to home.  In any case, I have never gotten around to reading it until now, when my wife picked it up in our local Free Library, brought it home and read it, and slipped it into my "to read" pile.

Junior is a typical Indian kid living on the rez in western Washington.  And in case we don't know what that means, Junior spends a good part of the book explaining his life.  The humor, dry and full of homoerotic violence, works surprisingly well at explaining some pretty hard truths about reservation life -- poverty, alcoholism, and general dispair -- while keeping the story from getting overwhelmed by the miserable conditions.

Junior's a smart kid but the reservation school can't offer him many opportunities.  Kids on the reservation don't go to college.  So, a concerned teacher encourages him to transfer to a white high school off the reservation to give him a chance.  Doing so, he faces overt racism from his new classmates and the ir community, but over time he wins over the people there.  Back home, things don't go so well as his tribe sees his decision as a betrayal of the tribe.  In the end, Junior finds a balance between his ambition to succeed and his respect for the traditions from which he comes.

The great strength of the book is its complete unwillingness to romanticize Indian life.  Some of this is done with the humor, but never too far from the surface is a strong caution that there is nothing particularly glorious or redeeming about the reservation.  And that the problems that Indians face are particularly complex and rooted in both external and internal forces.

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