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27 April 2009

Sherman Alexie's Manifesto for Hope

Alexie, Sherman. (2007) The Absolutely True Diary of a part-Time Indian. New York: Little, Brown & Co.

Sherman Alexie’s 2007 YA title The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a spirited (pardon the pun, if you will) look at a particular life in a very particular situation. Arnold Spirit, aka Junior, is a Spokane Indian born and raised in Wellpinit, Washington, who undergoes a painful transition from being a full-time reservation kid to "part-time Indian" when he decides to attend a predominantly white highschool in a nearby town. Alexie's credits include the collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, and the novel Reservation Blues, among many others, as well as the screenplays for Smoke Signals, and The Business of Fancydancing, not to mention several collections of poetry and short fiction. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian garnered numerous awards and landed on countless "best books" lists in 2007 and 2008.

Junior, who narrates his coming of age tale, begins the story by cataloging his extensive list of deficiencies and faults, including hydrocephalus, poor vision, and speech issues. Nothing like laying all of your cards out on the table right away. Junior proves to be highly likable, despite (or possibly because of) those very faults. From the under-funded rez school in Wellpinit, he travels to the public school in neighboring Reardan in pursuit of an education—or perhaps just looking for a challenge. Either way, his decision changes his life and the lives of his family. Walking the line between the white world and the rez, Junior has to come to terms with who he is, as well as who he wants to be. He imagines the rez as a concentration camp where no one leaves, not because walls or sentinels keep them in, but because hope is so scarce, they can’t be bothered to try for anything better.

The book has the feel of a journal, and is told in the past tense, although there is so much deft manipulation of time that it becomes difficult to even remember that the main thread is not told in the present tense. We know that the narrator is telling the story from some time after that first year at Reardan, but we are never sure how long after. What is clear, however, is that Junior's voice is a powerful element of this novel—he is intelligent, insightful, self-deprecating, irreverent, and really funny. He is equally at home recounting his grandmother’s funeral as he is discussing his own chronic masturbation.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is too good to allow a prudish impulse to keep it out of kids’ hands, however. One of the best things about it is the way it deals with its theme. It is, at least in part, about daring to hope, and when there is no hope to be found at home, daring to go out looking for it somewhere else. In the hospital following Junior’s concussion, his coach quotes Vince Lombardi, who said: “The quality of a man’s life is in direct proportion to his commitment to excellence, regardless of his chosen field of endeavor.” You can’t just hope, the story tells us, you also have to work hard with a goal firmly in mind. Hoping is the first part of the equation, and acting on that hope is the second part, which is how Junior begins to separate himself from the rez and its destructive environment.

Junior's final reconciliation with his friend Rowdy represents a coming to terms with the fact that while change cannot be reversed, it can be coped with. This book shows Junior emerging from a harrowing experience, armed with a new knowledge and wisdom with which to face whatever will come next. Alexie sends readers down a perilous road along with Junior, but it brings us back up at the end so that we too can go forth armed with new way to interact with and understand the world. The Absolutely True Diary of a part-Time Indian is a compelling tale that just might make you rethink your own life, and maybe even dare you to hope for more.

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