Friday, October 19, 2007

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

I recently read an advanced reading copy of Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. So far, I think this is the best contender for this year's Printz Award. (Go to for more info on the award.)

This book tells the tale of Junior, a teenager who lives on the Spokane Reservation, or as he calls it, the rez. In his diary, Junior details the poverty, despair, alchoholism and violence of his community and his hopes for making a more satisfying life for himself someday. In words and drawings, Junior the budding cartoonist, describes his decision to leave the rez school and take classes at the local, mostly white high school. In taking this unheard of action, Junior makes himself a pariah in both worlds. In the non-rez high school he's the strange newcomer who objects to the Indian mascot, wears strange clothes, and is simply and obviously "different." In the rez he's the traitor who betrayed his community by going outside of it. Slowly Junior begins to make progress in both worlds. He joins the basketball team--which unfortunately pits him against the rez kids in some fairly unequal matches--but also gives him some much needed self-esteem and challenges him to improve his game. He makes friends. And he begins to repair his damaged friendship with his best buddy on the reservation, a boy who took Junior's "betrayal" harder than anyone.
This book is great read about the difficulties of adolesence, the crushing nature of poverty, inequality, intolerance, and the struggle to overcome, all told in an accessible, humorous and likeable teenage voice. As a reader I truly liked Junior. I rooted for him. He sounded like a real person with real problems, joys, disappointments, and moments of greatness. This book could have been terribly depressing---and parts of it definitely were---but Junior's sense of humor buoys the novel. The harsh realities of the rez life are not candy-coated, but the beauties to be found there are expressed as well. Junior as our guide and narrator takes us on an indepth tour of the life he leads in all of its aspects. And he's downright hilarious at times.
Part of what I liked so much about this book was Junior's relationship to his family. Here we see people who truly love one another, despite some serious problems, namely alcoholism. Junior knows his parents try to do their best for him. He sees his older sister trying to improve her life as well---her subplot is one of the saddest of the novel and much of her story is told between the lines in the subtext. I liked Junior's family almost as much as I liked Junior. Junior never doubts that he is surrounded by people who may not understand what he's doing but will support him and love him regardless.
Though I read this as an ARC, the book is available in stores now (and at your local library, of course.) It won't take long to read it. I found myself sailing from one chapter to another, turning the pages without being able to stop. The short chapters lend themselves to this and Junior's tale is gripping enough to keep a person wanting to read. For this reason and many others, this book will be a good choice for a kid who thinks he or she doesn't like to read. This is Alexie's first book for young adults, but I think it will appeal to a wide range of ages.
This year's Printz, I am telling you.

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