In his first book for young adults, bestselling author Sherman Alexie tells the story of Junior, a budding cartoonist growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Determined to take his future into his own hands, Junior leaves his troubled school on the rez to attend an all-white farm town high school where the only other Indian is the school mascot. Heartbreaking, funny, and beautifully written, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which is based on the author’s own experiences, coupled with poignant drawings by acclaimed artist Ellen Forney, that reflect the character’s art, chronicles the contemporary adolescence of one Native American boy as he attempts to break away from the life he was destined to live.
Fun fact – Sherman Alexie gave a talk at my school during my freshman year of college. Not having heard of him before, I didn’t go. That was the biggest mistake, because otherwise I would have read this book a lot sooner than I did. I’ve been hearing good things for over a year now, and I’d been planning to read it for some time, but now I’m kicking myself for not reading it earlier, because it is SO GOOD.
Junior’s narrative is simultaneously funny and painful to read. Sherman Alexie strikes a really good balance of all the painful negative things in Junior’s life with a healthy dose of humor, irony, and sarcasm about his situation. The negatives include being poor, living on the reservation, his physical condition, and growing up in a world where almost no one expects him to be anything better than what his family and neighbors are. Still, Junior’s outlook on his life and the people around him is what makes the story so amazing. He knows who and what he is, and he’s not ashamed of that, but going to an all-white school outside the reservation makes everyone else, and even himself, feel that he’s betraying his family, his only friend Rowdy, and everyone else in the reservation. Throughout the story, there’s this constant navigation and coming to grips with the person Junior is, who he wants to be, and what defines him.
At the same time, Junior is a regular teenage-boy dealing with all the regular problems of growing up. One thing I really liked was that Junior was so honest and forthright about things like puberty, sexual attraction, and those awkward times when he shouldn’t have an erection but he does. He also likes playing basketball and drawing cartoons, the latter of which were shown through multiple examples to elaborate certain scenes or internal thoughts. Like the rest of Junior’s narrative, they’re a mix of entertaining, hilarious, sad, and super-intelligent. And that’s the thing – Junior is smart, perceptive, and self-aware. It’s those qualities that allow him to make the observations and claims he does, all of them dosed with his sarcastic, self-deprecating humor. But even though he has a number of qualities that make him ripe for being bullied – namely he’s small, weak, looks weird, and Indian (the latter only applies when he goes to Reardan) – he still recognizes the good qualities he has that allow him to respect himself. Not only that, but he cares so much about other people, including his family and his one friend Rowdy. Even when Rowdy shuns him and starts treating him like shit after Junior transfers schools, Junior keeps faith that they’ll one day be friends again because he knows they each played such a central part in each other’s lives for so long and each needed the other.
It’s hard for me to put into words how wonderful and meaningful this book is. It’s filled with quotes and passages I want to stick up everywhere that so clearly and accurately describe how Junior’s world works, as well as the various people in his life. No sentence is extraneous; every single one contains or contributes to a unique thought or observation. And the cartoons! The cartoons are just as excellent as the words. Suffice to say that this book is one of the most heartfelt, honest, and earnest books I’ve read in a while. Please, for the love of everything, read this book because it will, in Junior’s words, give you a metaphorical boner.
Disclosure – library