Sherman Alexie just received the National Book Award, Young People’s Literature, for his book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and it was a well-deserved award. My book-guru friend, Melissa, loaned me her copy from the library so I could read it for Callista’s Hometown Challenge. The library has 259 holds on this book right now, so I really appreciated the loaner.
It’s a very interesting read, full of humor and pathos, and teenage angst, and it wasn’t lightweight. The book was written for a teenage audience, and is semi-autobiographical, based on Alexie’s own life growing up on a reservation outside of Spokane, Washington. He is incredibly honest with his descriptions of what it was like to grow up there, and on how he (and his main character) were able to survive — physically, emotionally, and creatively — amidst the poverty, alcoholism, dysfunctional families, and pervasive despair and hopelessness of reservation life. Arnold Spirit, or “Junior,” (the main character) used humor and cartooning to help him express the very difficult emotions and experiences of growing up in that environment. I thought it was a tremendously courageous book, and it’s a story that hits powerfully and sticks with you.
I think the story would definitely appeal to high school students because Alexie speaks directly to them and uses a lot of humor to talk about the difficult experiences and decisions of growing up. It’s a very specific story, but with universal truths in it. Seattle artist, Ellen Forney, worked with Alexie to create cartoons that also help tell the story, and the cartoons became almost another character in the book. Reading, writing, cartooning, and basketball saved this young man by helping him sort through the complexities of his life and ultimately find himself. But it was the unconditional love of his family that gave him the courage to move out into the world and make something of himself.
A favorite part of this book, for me, was a long discussion between “Junior” and his new geeky, non-Indian friend, Gordy, about READING. I loved the entire discussion, but will only copy part of it here because I don’t want to ruin the humor of the passage by taking it completely out of context. So I’ll leave the humorous part to you–you’ll need to read the book to find out where this passage for the passionate reader/writer leads:
Best of all, he taught me how to read.
“Listen,” he said one afternoon in the library. “You’ll have to read a book three times before you know it. The first time you read it for the story. The plot. The movement from scene to scene that give the book its momentum, it’s rhythm. It’s like riding a raft down a river. You’re just paying attention to the currents. Do you understand that?”
“Not at all,” I said.
“Yes, you do,” he said.
“Okay, I do,” I said. I really didn’t but Gordy believed in me. He wouldn’t let me give up.
“The second time you read a book, you read it for its history. For its knowledge of history. You think about the meaning of each word, and where that word came from. I mean, you read a novel that has the word ‘spam’ in it, and you know where that word comes from, right?”
“Spam is junk e-mail,” I said.
“Yes, that’s what it is, but who invented the word, who first used it, and how has the meaning of the word changed since it was first used?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Well, you have to look all that up. If you don’t treat each word that seriously then you’re not treating the novel seriously.”
Sherman Alexie is a gifted storyteller. His humor, his insights, and his courage to tell young people this honestly complex and riveting story about LIFE won him the National Book Award — an honor and recognition he so richly deserves.