From the number of reviews I’ve written lately you wouldn’t know that I’ve been reading much in the way of current or forthcoming middle grade and YA novels, but of course I have been. This week I’ll post a few reviews by way of playing "catch up."
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
by Sherman Alexie (Little, Brown; September 2007)
With his new young adult novel Sherman Alexie joins the swelling ranks of adult authors now attempting to write for a younger audience. I say "attempting" because many of these authors miss the mark — they construct characters who feel like clichéd approximations of children or teenagers, or (more frequently) write in voices that read either too old or too young. Fortunately Sherman Alexie has managed to avoid these pitfalls in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, a YA novel that is fresh, funny, seemingly authentic, and 100% winning.
Reportedly based on Alexie’s own life story, The Absolutely True Diary… introduces readers to Arnold Spirit, Jr. (a.k.a. "Junior"), an awkward social outcast whose life initially grows even worse when he makes the unheard-of decision to transfer from his impoverished Spokane Indian Reservation school to an affluent, all-white high school some distance from the rez. As you’d expect, the white students at his new school don’t exactly embrace Arnold and make him part of the in-crowd. Their seeming indifference to his existence, though, isn’t half so damaging to Arnold’s morale as the Indian students’ attitudes toward their friend-turned-traitor. Thinking Arnold must believe he’s somehow better than them, his Indian peers turn their backs on him altogether — when they aren’t trying to beat the life out of him, that is.
It’s this complicated, emotionally fraught dynamic that makes Alexie’s novel so much more complex than most "outsider on the road to insider" stories. Arnold makes a knowing choice to leave the rez because he’s confident that staying there will mean a life with no future — a life almost certain to be characterized by alchoholism, depression, poverty and a death as senseless as the many that punctuate this story. To Arnold, the prospect of a life free from these trials is worth being shunned by his tribal community, worth the loss of his friends, worth hitch-hiking or (if need be) walking the 22 miles to and from school each day, worth trying to forgive himself for choosing one part-time life over another.
Lest I paint this picture too darkly, though, let me say that The Absolutely True Diary… is ultimately neither depressing nor disturbing. It’s honest. And funny. And wonderfully memorable. Much as Jack Gantos did with his autobiographical Hole in My Life, Alexie tells Arnold’s (and parts of his own) story with enough humility and humor to save it from the weight of its own themes and make of it something meaningful, sincere, and greatly entertaining. Put this into the hands of a high school boy and odds are you’ll find him actually reading it, and no doubt enjoying it too.