Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian.

It sucks to be poor, and it sucks to feel that you somehow deserve to be poor. You start believing that you're poor because you're stupid and ugly. And then you start believing that you're stupid and ugly because you're Indian. And because you're Indian you start believing you're destined to be poor. It's an ugly circle and there's nothing you can do about it.

Poverty doesn't give you strength or teach you lessons about perseverance. No, poverty only teaches you how to be poor.

I read this book about a year ago, but it's also one of the books I have to read for a course I'm taking this semester, K-12 Multicultural Lit. Although I didn't re-read it because I am already incredibly strapped for time recently, I sifted through it again for quotes for some homework I was writing on it, and it made me remember how much I really liked this book. Like, I really liked it. Like, it totally deserved the National Book Award it won. Like, I think it's my favorite book I've read over the last year.

After the past few years where I've read primarily contemporary children's & young adult lit with only a very occasional "adult" book thrown in, I've determined that there are two popular styles of writing for J/Y (juvenile/young adult as classified by the library, and which I find easier to say and so which I will use from now on, especially since the distinction between a "children's" and a "young adult" book can be kind of annoying anyway) books: the classic, often Newbery Award type style of classic storytelling, a la E.L. Konigsburg, or Lois Lowry, or Richard Peck. Then there is the style where the author attempts to write like a teenager actually thinks, full of cynicism and "like"s, like a sassier version of Holden Caufield. I tend to think that if I were to write J/Y books this would be the way I would write, and when it is done really well, I love it, but when it is not done really well, it is just kind of annoying and unnatural. Sherman Alexie in this book is an example of doing it awesomely. The text, loosely based on Alexie's own childhood, is made even better by brilliant illustrations/comics by Ellen Forney. The combination makes it one of the most authentic sounding, depressing, funny, touching depictions of being a teenager - and an Indian teenager - ever.

The story is especially interesting to me as, being that Alexie is from Washington, it is a somewhat "local" story, and ever since moving here I have been really interested in the American Indian culture here. On the East Coast I feel like the Indian culture is somewhat nonexistent, except if you go to Foxwoods or something, or learn the history of the names of stuff. I grew up on Lake Wallenpaupack, for instance, a Leni Lenape word, and although we learned some stuff about the Leni Lenape growing up it was all in a historical context, in terms of sepia colored photos. Then you go out west and there are all these reservations and you're forced to remember what we did to these people. There are often articles in the Oregonian about the different tribes and reservations in Oregon: the Warm Springs Nation, the Umatilla, the Coquille, and I always love reading about them. I read about them when there's an article about salmon, about powwows they still do, about how their level of unemployment in the recession is unparalleled to any other group. There were falls on the Columbia River, Celilo Falls, which were spiritually and economically important to lots of tribes and which our government smartly decided to obliterate with a dam in the 50's, and people are still mad about it, and rightly so. Everything about it fascinates me. A whole bunch of really depressing things happen to the protagonist Junior in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, and it's because a whole bunch of really depressing things happen to American Indians these days. Every time I pass a huge ridiculous casino out here on tribal lands, even though Kathy & I have gambled in one, I don't know how to feel about it. I hope this doesn't make me sound like I am exoticizing them like an offensive white outsider ("My, these people are so interesting!") which I very well may be, but it's just very, well, interesting to me, and in short I would love read all of Alexie's other books.

You probably think I've completely fallen in love with white people and that I don't see anything good in Indians. Well, that's false.

I'm friends with some white kids, and I've never met their fathers.

That's absolutely freaky.

On the rez, you know every kid's father, mother, grandparents, dog, cat, and shoe size. I mean, yeah, Indians are screwed up, but we're really close to each other. We KNOW each other. Everybody knows everybody.

I've learned that white people, especially fathers, are good at hiding in plain sight.


  1. Jill! I loved loved loved this book, too! Thanks for giving Alexie a shout-out, I think he is one of the best YA authors out there. Generally I hate "realistic young adult fiction" but he got it right with this one. His adult short stories are pretty awesome too...

  2. This book is on my reading list this semester as well. of course, I've read it before, pretty good.