When was the last time a book not only made you a little bit nauseous but excited as well? The National Book Award-winning novel THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN by Sherman Alexie is such a magnanimous stew of reality and hope --- and the particular traumatic existence of a reservation teen in contemporary America --- that you can't possibly put it down, no matter how sad, disgusted or freaked out it makes you.
In much the same way that S.E. Hinton's THE OUTSIDERS defined that wrong-side-of-the-tracks world for word-loving ’70s preteen bookgeeks (of which I was one), this novel will challenge and define a new world for today's readers. Based on Alexie’s actual life experiences, it has certainly gained him many new admirers since its hardcover release in 2007.
THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN begins with Junior's everyday travails. Born with water on the brain, he suffers a rash of difficult and painful physical traumas daily. Bright and filled with ideas and artistic ability, Arnold Spirit (Junior's beautiful true name) --- the son of an alcoholic and a long-suffering mom --- decides to take a chance, get off the "rez" and attend a white private school in Rearden, Washington (just like Alexie himself did). To his surprise, he leaves the world of bullies and bullying behind him and encounters new friends who share some of his interests. His basketball team meets up with his old classmates on the court, and a battle of both bodies and cultures begins.
Junior’s remarkable ability to weather even the worst personal storms (death, hunger, a questioning of his identity and his tribe) makes this an uplifting yet very emotional reading experience. Also, the drawings by Ellen Forney remind me of a teen's combination of the work of Ralph Steadman and any MAD magazine cartoonist; they add a further, descriptive dimension to Junior's persona and are a great accompaniment to Alexie's forthright words and dramatic incidents. By the end of the book, you are entirely inside Junior's oversized head. I found it hard to shake him, his world and his travails when I turned the last page.
There is something in the force of Alexie's description that captures your heart, even while some of his raunchiest statements can turn your stomach. Boys of this age will be boys of this age, regardless of race or economic class. There is much to recommend here, but one word of warning: sex and violence rear their ugly heads as much as deep and unabiding sorrow and great flowering words of encouragement. This is a book that delves into every possible aspect of one boy's adolescent wanderings. The fact that Alexie actually encountered such incidents in real life only serves to make the narrative that much more imposing. Knowing that he fought a successful fight against all the things that oppressed him as a kid gives THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN even greater resonance. Hope is indeed the thing with feathers.
Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on April 1, 2009
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian