Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

You know how if someone has a particularly lovely or compelling speaking voice the old adage is you'd happily listen to him or her read the phone book? Well that's how I feel about Sherman Alexie's authorial voice. It's awesome and I will read whatever he wants to write for as long as he wants to write it.

That being said,
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian feels like the book I've been waiting for him to write since I first picked up Reservation Blues in high school. A semi-autobiographical tale of Arnold “Junior” Spirit, a high school freshman growing up on the Spokane Reservation, TATDOAPTI is at once hilarious and heartbreaking.

Near the beginning of the book, Junior makes the unpopular decision to leave his reservation high school to attend the all-white Reardon High School. What prompts this decision is when he realizes that he will be using the exact same geometry book his mother did in high school. As a veteran of a high school where textbooks often looked like they'd survived the Great Flood, I could sympathize. However, leaving the reservation for school just isn't done and by challenging the status quo, Junior finds himself at odds with his best friend Rowdy and the unwilling focal point of a lot of attention both at home and at Reardon.

Alexie does a masterful job balancing the hopeful (Junior's progress in school and making friends, however unlikely) with the tragic (the body count in this novel is higher than many murder mysteries). He doesn't shy away from the bleakness of the future for many of Junior's family and friends, but he also shows the love present in almost every Spirit family scene.

Junior is the kind of hero you don’t even realize is one until the end of the story. By focusing on his broken brain, general nerdiness, and lack of appeal to the opposite sex, Alexie camouflages the fact that Junior is also willing to walk miles in the blistering sun or freezing cold, face down the majority of the reservation, and, perhaps most intimidating, enter an entirely new high school as a complete outsider in order to get a better education.

Writing a YA novel right now seems to be the thing to do amongst well-regarded novelists. Jane Smiley, Cory Doctorow, John Grisham, and Neil Gaiman are just some of the names flooding the market. With such an influx it's always hard not wonder if their agent suggested they write a YA book because 1) they're hot right now and 2) they're shorter. Thus I approach most of their offerings with a healthy degree of skepticism. However, I don't care if Sherman Alexie thinks YA is the scratch lotto ticket of the literary world. Whatever prompted it resulted in his best book to date - and one I would recommend to any reader I know.

YA is right for Alexie and Alexie is right for YA. His voice - funny and furious - is a much-needed addition to the high school lit oeuvre.


  1. I loved this book as well! I've read most of his short story collections, but have not yet tackled Reservation Blues. It's on my list.

  2. I liked 'Reservation Blues' though it's been a while. Have you read any of his poetry? That's what I haven't been able to start. :)