5 Questions: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Bowing to pressure from outraged parents and after inquiries from the Daily News, the principal of Public School/Middle School 114 announced the book was no longer required summer reading. ‘It was like “Fifty Shades of Grey” for kids,’ said Kelly-Ann McMullan-Preiss, who refused to let her son read the book.

Read more: http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/queens/nyc-sixth-graders-longer-read-racy-article-1.1414308#ixzz2b0ZJ4Ij4

REALLY?!?  This book is about many things, but the last thing it is is “Fifty Shades”…nor is it about masturbation, or teen swearing.

Anyone who has actually READ this book knows that it’s about growing up, racism, alcoholism, poverty, friendship, family, love, hope/desperation, courage, finding your identity, and many, many more. This was my favorite book this summer. Yes, it contains f-bombs and references to sex but it is not used gratuitously, I promise!  You can like or dislike the book — everyone is entitled to that — but let it not be because a) you haven’t read it or b) a word you didn’t like was mentioned a few times.

Below is my reading response for the book, written for my YA course this summer.

Favorite part/scene of the novel….

I loved Alexie’s use of humor to offset the hopelessness and desperation Junior (and those living on the reservation) feels.  This is often seen in the cartoons Junior draws, which serve as lighthearted commentary on the important events and people in life.  They are full of sarcasm (e.g. p. 51, 107, 124) and keen observations (especially portraits of Junior’s family and friends: those of his parents on p. 12, of his sister on p. 27, and of his grandmother on p. 69).  The narrative contains many funny moments too.  One of the saddest part of the book – when the reservation held a wake for Junior’s grandmother after she was killed by a drunk driver – was filled with laughter:  Billionaire “Ted” had shown up for the wake with a long-winded, affected story about how he came to be in possession of Grandmother Spirit’s dance outfit, only to be told that she was never a dancer, and that, contrary to what his expert had told him, the beadwork and design looked more Sioux than Spokane.  And just like that, the tone of the chapter turns from somber to light:

Two thousands Indians laughed at the same time.  We kept laughing.
It was the most glorious noise I’d ever heard.
And I realized that, sure, Indians were drunk and sad and displaced and crazy and mean, but dang, we knew how to laugh.
When it comes to death, we know that laughter and tears are pretty much the same thing.

To me, this passage (p. 166) is a perfect summation of the tone of this book – a marriage of light and dark, laughter and tears.

How did the book make you feel and what thoughts did it make you have…relate to personal experiences…

I am especially drawn to the theme of duality in this book, the duo identity that Junior grapples with.  I loved the cartoon on p. 166 — one side of the face laughing, one side crying — but also p. 43 — the signage pointing one way to REZ/HOME and one to HOPE/??? – and p. 57 – a split drawing of a white boy on one side and an Indian boy on the other.  The white boy has labels such as “a bright future”, “hope”, and “positive role models”, while the Indian boy has labels such as “a vanishing past”, “a family history of diabetes and cancer”, and “bone-crushing reality”.  This struggle for identity is also shown on p. 182, in the cartoon showing Junior playing basketball.  On the one where he was playing on the rez, he is depicted as the devil or “white-lover”.  On the other side, he is playing at Reardan and is depicted as an angel.  In both pictures, he is thinking, “Who am I?”

Junior and many other characters in the book frequently have to contend with duo-identity issues (his sister Mary, Rowdy, even his parents, who go back and forth between sober and drunk).  Do they stay on the rez knowing that they’ll be stuck in a vicious cycle of poverty, drunkenness, and hopelessness?  Or do they leave, knowing that they’ll be considered traitors?  Even after Junior makes the decision to leave, he struggles with who he really is and where he truly belongs.  Being an immigrant myself, I often wrestle with the same question, but as I’ve grown older, I’ve realized that there’s no good answer – one just ends up feeling pulled in all sorts of directions.  I loved Junior’s epiphany near the end of the book (p. 217):

I realized that sure, I was a Spokane Indian.  I belonged to that tribe.  But I also belonged to the tribe of American immigrants.  And to the tribe of basketball players.  And to the tribe of bookworms.
And the tribe of cartoonists.
And the tribe of chronic masturbators.
And the tribe of teenage boys.
And the tribe of small-town kids.
And the tribe of Pacific Northwesterners.
And the tribe of tortilla chips-and-salsa lovers.
And the tribe of poverty.
And the tribe of funeral-goers.
And the tribe of beloved sons.
And the tribe of boys who really missed their best friends.
It was a huge realization.
And that’s when I knew that I was going to be okay.

Consider whether or not this novel would appeal to today’s teens. If so, why and to which group? Think about where the novel fits into the YA spectrum. Middle school? High school? Boys? Girls? Reluctant Readers? Only fans of certain genre? 

I believe this book would appeal to today’s teens, since it addresses many issues that teens deal with today: alcoholism, poverty, abuse, racism, etc.  According to Alexie’s 2011 Speakeasy article, “Why the Best Kids Books are Written in Blood”, he has met with many young readers who found solace and hope in reading Part-Time Indian.  Boys might be especially drawn by the sports references in the book and the male characters/friendships.  That said, boys and girls alike who have dealt with identity issues as well as those mentioned above will find themselves in these pages.  This book might appeal to reluctant readers and fans of graphic novels/cartoons (the art adds volumes to the text).  Reviewers recommend this book for middle-schoolers and up.

 

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