This book has been around for about a decade and probably doesn’t need my feeble attempts to review it, but I read it in one sitting and then couldn’t get it out of my mind for days afterwards. Alternating between hilarity and heartbreak, this novel covers every emotion out there. The very things that make you laugh also make you cry.
Junior is 14 years old, part white, mostly Indian, and living on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington. Born with hydrocephalus, he has a large head and weird eyesight and big hands and feet. He has faced mental and physical challenges his whole life, but he knows he is smart and that there is more to his life than the mocking and beatings he takes daily at the reservation school. The other Indians on the rez call him retard and faggot and after he transfers from Wellpinit High to a high school in Reardon, an apple – red on the outside, white on the inside. He’s the only Indian at Reardon, an all-white town school 22 miles from home. Well, the high school mascot is an Indian, and the name of the school sports teams is the Redskins. You can imagine how welcome he feels.
But the one thing that Junior has is hope. He doesn’t want to spend his life in an alcoholic haze, he doesn’t want to attend funerals every other week, he doesn’t want to settle for a life that is laid out bare in front of him. And he manages, through his brains and basketball skills, to make a name for himself at his new school. Which, by the way, is Arnold there.
Through it all, the good and the bad, Junior never loses his sense of humour and irony. The story of this one year in his life is about strength in the face of adversity, resilience when he is emotionally and physically knocked down once again, and finding the joy and laughter in life, even in times of sorrow and tragedy. Junior faces poverty and prejudice and death, and survives with his sense of self intact. He understands that poverty begets poverty, which in turn leads to hopelessness and belief that the life is deserved and can never be challenged or changed. He knows there is no dignity in it; the dignity must come from within the person.
Author Sherman Alexie is Spokane. He grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation, and attended Reardon High as the only Native student. This story is based on his life, and is written with a humour and honesty that so beautifully shows Junior’s relationships to his family and friends (both new and old) and the people on his reservation. His love and understanding for his family and his devotion to friends are just facets of the kindness and strength that hold him up. The reservation itself, with the generations that have lived on it and those to come, plays a prominent role in his development and outlook on his life and future.
The illustrations done by Ellen Forney throughout bring the story to life even more so. Junior spends his life drawing to express himself, and I love the various styles – the more realistic portraits of his family, honest depictions of how he views each member, and slightly more cartoonish ones for situations when he wants to express feelings and impressions.
This book is full of mature themes, and may be tough for readers at the younger end of the YA range. But it offers educators and parents the opportunity to open many avenues of discussion. It should be on everyone’s to-read list.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was published September 12th, 2007 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers