Diary fiction is hot stuff just now. It’s kind of a hybrid; fiction masquerading as creative nonfiction – a type of voyeurism that allows readers to peer inside the heart and mind of the narrator. Narratorial voice is key, and the more authentic the voice, the more powerful the impact. Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a case in point.
I wasn’t going to read this book. I resented the fact that the School Library Journal gave it a thumbs up for twelve-year-olds. True, Arnold Spirit, Jr., the protagonist, is in middle school. But his language, his sarcasm, his whole schtick, at first glance, was alarming. I just didn’t want to deal with it. Recently, however, I was stuck at an airport and needed something to read, and bought a copy. As soon as I started reading this time, I was hooked. Junior (Spirit’s nickname on the rez) is a real person. He can be vulgar (like a lot of 13-year-old boys, I guess) but he can also be astonishingly sweet, and funny. He is a living, breathing boy, and you end up really caring about him.
Born with water on the brain, Junior is an Indian (his term; no one in this book is ever referred to as a Native American) cartoonist who draws constantly in order to express himself, and connect to the world. (Junior’s comics are sprinkled throughout the text). He has dreams, and hopes for a good life, even though he knows that Indians aren’t supposed to do that. His family is so poor, his Dad has to shoot their dog when it gets sick, because they can’t take it to the vet. After freaking out one day when he realized the textbook he is handed was used by his mother – meaning it is over 20 years old – a teacher encourages him to leave the rez and go to the rich, white school, 20 miles or so away. Junior is conflicted. He doesn’t want to abandon his people, but he has to go where there is hope, and the possibility of getting out of the cycle of poverty.
Of course all this heavy stuff is implicit – Junior’s cutting perceptions of the problems all around him are punctuated throughout by a wicked wit and unflinching self-examination. After a rocky start, he falls in love with an anorexic “translucently beautiful” white girl who morphs into a sort-of girlfriend, joins the basketball team, and because of his quirky and courageous character, becomes an accepted part of the school community. His true community, however, of course, lives on the rez. How can he leave them behind? Will they ever forgive him?
I have to say, I was wrong about this book. Regardless of its genre, its age range, and what not, Sherman’s novel is just really, really good. By the time you reach the last page, you wish it could go on and on. Like all great fiction, at heart it’s all absolutely true, and therefore very compelling. As the poet W.B. Yeats tells us on the frontispiece of the book, “There is another world, but it is in this one.” This world of an adolescent on the rez is not often, or ever, portrayed with such stirring clarity.
So is this book for the younger spectrum of middle grade? At first glance, no, not really – at least not on their own. It’s vulgar at times, and a lot of really disturbing things happen. But there is a discussion guide in the back for teachers, with helpful questions that probe the deeper implications of the book. With that kind of guided reading in a middle grade classroom, I imagine the experience would be fantastic.