Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Book Review - The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

My family lived in Wyoming between my 6th grade year and junior year of high school. Those five years were a learning experience for me in many areas of my life, but one of the surprising areas was in a new perspective on race in America. I was a Midwestern girl who had spent eight of her earliest formative years in Detroit, a city where I was surrounded by race issues related to black/white. One of my best friends was an African American girl who lived next door and my Lutheran elementary school had a healthy racial mix. When we moved to Wyoming I was suddenly surrounded by a sea of white. There are exceptions, which was true in our town, but for the most part the Wyoming population is very white. That is until one visits the reservation, or the "rez." While exposure to other races had never been lacking in my upbringing, exposure to real, live Indians was a new experience for me. And as I get older and learn more, the minimal exposure to Native Americans that I experienced during that five year period begins to make more sense. It also makes me more passionate about what I believe is the most disenfranchised racial group in the United States, a passion I even carry into my teaching of American Literature.

Sherman Alexie's young adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was a delightful addition to my summer reading. It is a book that has faced censorship nationwide, but the English teacher in me cannot resist a little controversy in my summer reading selections. The book is funny, heartbreaking, and eye opening, and while I can definitely see why some parents might object to the content in the book, I believe that it is a story worth reading. It is honest. And it is important.

The novel follows Junior (Arnold) as he makes the controversial decision to leave the "rez" and attend a small, all-white school in the neighboring town. Near the beginning of his freshman year, Junior's teacher convinces him that he needs to get off the reservation to save himself. Junior knows his teacher is right but it is a scary move. To leave the reservation and attend a "white" school is to renounce his tribe. He knows that if he leaves he will be seen as a traitor. He also knows that he will be an outsider at his new school, surrounded by racists and individuals with preconceived notions about Native Americans. But he knows that the only way to escape a future of poverty and alcoholism is for him to attend school off of the reservation. In the process he loses his best friend and he and his family are persecuted by their family, friends, and neighbors. However, he discovers new opportunities that he would have never had if he had stayed on the reservation.

It is the story of a teenage boy caught between two worlds. Many teenagers are caught between two worlds and it is for that reason that this novel speaks to teenagers. Much of what Junior experiences in the novel mirrors their own high school experiences. But it also the story of a Native American teenager caught between two very different worlds. Alexie, a Spokane Indian himself, captures the uniqueness that is 21st century Native American adolescence. He humorously critiques both the white world and the Native American Indian world, both of which appear to perpetuate a broken system that keeps Native Americans poor and outside of the American Dream. He shines a light on the problems that plague modern Native Americans, primarily alcoholism, substance abuse, and poor education, which turn the revolving door of poverty. He shatters many of the assumptions that people outside of the reservations have concerning Native Americans.

Near the end of the novel Junior realizes that in order for him to be ok, he needs to leave. "I wept and wept and wept because I knew that I was never going to drink and because I was never going to kill myself and because I was going to have a better life out in the white world. I realized that I might be a lonely Indian boy, but I was not alone in my loneliness. There were millions of other Americans who had left their birthplaces in search of a dream. 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...It was a huge realization. And that's when I knew that I was going to be okay. But it also reminded me of the people who were not going to be ok." Alexie's character does what he also did; he leaves. That is the only thing that will save Junior. The reservation killed his parents' dreams. It will kill his best friend's dreams. But he will not let it kill his dreams.

There is so much discussion in this country about people of various races and their difficulties, past and present. We debate immigration, we discuss inequity in the legal system, we argue about welfare reform and who it will hurt most, we criticize the education system and the apparent racism in the SAT. But we forget about the first Americans. We preach about the horrors of slavery (and yes, it was horrible) but we ignore the 19th century genocide  of tribe after tribe of Native Americans (and according to the definition of "genocide" from 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, it was genocide). Native Americans are an important part of United States history. In a recent interview, Sherman Alexie said "I know a lot more about being white than you know about being Indian." I believe that is what struck me most about the novel. That is also what was so heartbreaking about the novel. We don't concern ourselves with learning about Native American history, believing that they are all the same and putting them into a singular group. We don't concern ourselves with their history and significant tribal differences. We allow most of what we know about them as a people to come from the media. We say "Let them have their casinos and as long as they don't come off the reservation, we don't have to own up to the fact that we forget they even exist." I am not immune to this attitude and belief. I was entering adolescence before I saw my first "real, live Indian," but I don't want it to be that way for my children. I don't want them to see Native Americans as a relic of the past but as a vibrant part of our current American culture.

Native Americans are suddenly in the media spotlight because of a sports controversy. I'm not sure how I feel about the whole current Redskins controversy, but I personally do not believe that this is the most important issue facing Native Americans in 21st century America. I personally feel that the entire Native American community would be much better served if the rest of this country tried to figure out how to enfranchise them into mainstream American society without forcing them to give up their culture and identity. That is something we haven't figured out how to do in 400 years. One of the critiques of the novel is that it is anti-Christian. As a Christian woman, the "slams" against Christianity made me squirm. But as a historian I completely understand where those slams came from. I am much more uncomfortable with the history of "conversion" of Native American Indians than I am with Alexie's novelized critique of Christianity and organized religion. The 19th and early 20th century approach of "Kill the Indian to save the soul" has done much more harm than good with lasting damage reaching into the 21st century. There is no easy answer to how to help the original Americans, but I believe it is time that the rest of us stop ignoring that it is a problem. A book like True Diary is important reading for young adults and adults. It gives a glimpse into a world that most of us will never personally encounter while being entertaining at the same time. Books can open worlds and minds, so why not start with this one?

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