Book review: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

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I suddenly understood that if every moment of a book should be taken seriously, then every moment of a life should be taken seriously as well.

Junior has lived his whole life on the Spokane Indian Reservation, and like many children on the reservation, his life has been anything but great. Kids can be cruel, and kids on the reservation are no exception. Born with water on the brain, Junior’s unusual appearance and speech patterns have led to bullying and rejection. He has only one good friend, Rowdy, his polar opposite.

The thing that sets Junior apart from most of his classmates is his sheer motivation to learn. Not only is Junior smart, but he loves to read. He loves to expand his knowledge. And he knows he’s not getting anywhere in the sorry joke of a school on the reservation. When he tells his parents that he wants to go to a white school, he’s surprised to have them agree. Thus begins Junior’s life as a “part-time Indian.”

Reardon is twenty-two miles from the reservation. Sometimes Junior gets a ride. Sometimes he hitchhikes. And sometimes he walks. The kids at his new school aren’t quite sure what to make of him. They’ve never known anyone from the reservation, so it’s a bit of an adjustment for them. But Junior is great at basketball, he’s really smart, and he always knows what to say, so it’s not long before the prettiest girl in the class has accepted him, and eventually he makes some real friends.

I really had no intentions of ever reading this book. I’ve seen it in bookstores. It’s popped up as a recommendation a few times. But if my 2016 reading challenge hadn’t required me to read a National Book Award winner, it’s doubtful that I would have ever picked it up. And that would be a shame, because this book was very good. And here’s the thing: It was not at all what I expected.

In some ways, this book is very easy to read. The writing flows beautifully. There are drawings throughout that illustrate what’s happening in Junior’s life. It feels like it was written for teenagers. But then, in other ways, it’s a very difficult book. There are some really heavy topics in here. Multiple friends and family members die. Alcoholism, eating disorders, and racism are presented in an age-appropriate (but not sugar-coated) way.

This book could have easily gone in the wrong direction, weighed down by everything terrible that happens to Junior. (And there are an awful lot of terrible things that happen over a mere 230 pages.) But the book is written in a way that doesn’t exactly make light of what’s happening, but also doesn’t dwell on the bad. Junior uses his sense of humor to get through the dark times. He draws silly cartoons to lighten the mood. His frank, often self-deprecating comments challenge the reader to examine their own preconceptions of Native American culture and their own privilege.

This book was so much more than I expected, and I’m glad to have read it.

Final rating: ★★★★☆

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