Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Off the Reservation

I read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie in one afternoon. It's written from the perspective of a 14-year-old Spokane Indian boy, and whereas Junior does sound like a typical teen (fart jokes and all), he offers many true, thoughtful observations about his world. The story has a lot of standards in good coming-of-age novels (e.g., Jim the Boy, Run with the Horsemen).

When Junior decides to transfer to the more-challenging "white" school in a local town, he is treated as a traitor on the reservation. Junior is awkward, poor, and lonely, but he finds unexpected kindness from others. He mourns the loss of his best friend and multiple deaths in the family as well as the more general self-destructive lifestyle of his tribe. Part of why the narrative works so well is that it's told by Junior in the first person, so he can confide all the touchy-feely emotions deemed unacceptable for adolescent males. The novel is filled with his funny, perceptive cartoons, such as a drawing of him and his former best friend in the third grade, jumping into a lake holding hands, with the caption: "Boys can hold hands until they turn nine."

Every crisis and triumph in Junior's life is an equal mixture of pain and joy. He reacts to so many miserable circumstances with crazed laughter, and it's hard to know whether you want to laugh or cry yourself. Alexie's novel is a keen combination of tragedy and hope, capturing perfectly the language of a teen-aged outsider.

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