Book review: Sherman Alexie breaks through diversity

Kathleen Duncan

Feb. 6, 2013 at 2:04 p.m.
Updated Feb. 5, 2013 at 8:06 p.m.

"The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" by Sherman Alexie is a sweet coming-of-age story about Junior, a young man growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Junior, whose real name is Arnold Spirit, decides to leave the reservation to attend the rich all-white school, Reardan, 22 miles away.

He has seen enough lives wasted through alcohol, sadness and poverty on the reservation and decides he wants something more. In the face of the funerals, his alcoholic father and his sister living in the basement, Junior switches schools in a hunt for something better, something worth living for.

In a funny, self-deprecating voice, Junior starts by telling us about himself. He was born with water on the brain and too many teeth. He has a small body, large feet, hands and an enormous head.

"My head was so big that little Indian skulls orbited around it."

Junior also has seizures, a stutter and a lisp. Despite these natural challenges, he is a determined, smart dreamer.

Junior loves to read books and draw.

"If you speak and write in English or Spanish or Chinese or any other language, then only a certain percentage of human beings will get your meaning. But when you draw a picture, everybody can understand it."

Junior draws cartoons to understand the world and let the world understand him.

It is hard at first when Junior switches schools. His tribe shuns him. Reardan is not welcoming. His best friend, Rowdy, stops talking to him. Most of the time, he has to hitchhike or walk because his dad is drunk or doesn't have enough money for gas to take him to school. But as his white schoolmates learn to look beyond the color of his skin, Junior learns to look beyond theirs.

"The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" addresses issues of racism, poverty and ignorance. It doesn't glorify or gloss over the everyday realities on the reservation. Junior is 14 years old and has been to 42 funerals. The reservation's ramshackle school uses the same books from his parents' years there. Everyone knows each other and values each other, but they lead a hard and often short, inebriated life.

By traveling outside of the reservation every day for school, Junior learns that white or Indian, people are just people, regardless of color. Every person has personal challenges, blind spots, prejudices and inner demons. But he also learns that better resources and opportunities can lead to a better life for those who are lucky enough to have them.

Even in the face of senseless death and despair, Junior believes that if you try hard enough, you can find something worth walking 22 miles for. You can find hope.



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