I asked you what my final 2007 review should be. You voted. And that winner turned out to be this book. It probably doesn’t need the publicity, but that’s not to say it isn’t one heck of a novel. With pleasure, my thoughts on the matter.
I have not often had the pleasure of inhabiting the head of an adolescent male. Once in a while I’ll run across a YA novel that sort of captures what I imagine it would be like (Looking for Alaska by John Green was one such example) but not every teen author has the ability to plunge you directly into the little gray cells of a adolescent boy with any conviction. I doubt I would have considered Sherman Alexie up to the task prior to reading this book. Not that I don’t think the man’s got mad skills, mind. His The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven should be required reading for anyone with American citizenship. I just tend to be leery of adult authors that suddenly want to make the switch and start writing for young people. Maybe this isn’t as violent a switch as Joyce Carol Oates writing picture books (to say nothing of Margaret Atwood) but whenever an adult author lowers the age on their prospective readership, you worry that they’re going to feel obliged to dumb their writing down. As if child readers are just slightly less intelligent adults. Fortunately, in the case of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian such fears remain unfounded. Alexie makes a natural leap into teen literature and the result is a novel that’s a mix of humor and gut-wrenching pain. That Alexie, man. He’s still got it.
You can credit Junior with this much; he’s not a complainer. Not really. I mean, sure he was born with an enormous head, gigantic feet, crazy eyes, ten more teeth than normal, a stutter, and a lisp . . . . but hey, have you ever seen the guy’s cartoons? They’re great! Junior isn’t the most popular kid on his reservation but he does all right. That is, until the day he snaps after finding his mother’s maiden name in an old junky geometry book. Oddly, the teacher he lobs the book in the face of isn’t angry. He just tells Junior in no uncertain terms that it would be in his own best interest to leave the reservation. Some way, somehow, he has to get off and make something of himself. Junior’s no fool. He’s perfectly aware that leaving the rez will be seen as some kind of a betrayal to his friends and neighbors, but the next thing you know he’s applied to Reardan. Reardan is a rich, white school where the only Indian is the school mascot. Joining Reardan means that Junior has figure out what he wants from the world, what he needs from his family, and what he should do with his life.
Clearly Mr. Alexie did his homework before he tackled the world of YA. At one point Junior lists his favorite books. You’ve a couple classics on there like Invisible Man and The Grapes of Wrath, but I was just pleased as punch to see some contemporary books like Fat Kid Rules the World (one of my favorites) and Tangerine as well. He also gets the feel of high school right. When Junior has just begun his time at his new high school and he gets teased with a truly offensive joke he responds by punching the guy. In his school this would be standard operating procedure. In this school, however, it’s considered to be completely bizarre. Culture shock is best defined when “the norm” appears to be two different things to two different people. Mr. Alexie gets that, and the reader will too.
As for the writing, it’s top notch. This kind of subject matter requires a seemingly effortless mixture of laughter and tears. Sherman Alexie manages to deliver this, so that a funeral for Junior’s grandmother is just as full of outright guffaws as it is pain and distress. Alexie also knows how to wield a delightful one-liner. “PCs are like French people living during the bubonic plague.” Or about a bulimic girl who tries to cover it up the odor with gum, “She just smells like somebody vomited on a big old cinnamon tree.” Finally, when Junior talks about cartooning as an art, he isn’t dinking around. I enjoyed the section where he explained that “If you speak and write in English, or Spanish, or Chinese, or any other language, then only a certain percentage of human beings will get your meaning. But when you draw a picture, everybody can understand it.”
Since Part-Time Indian received the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, it has gotten its own fair share of attention. This is great since I felt that cartoonist Ellen Forney clearly needs as much of it as she can get. Forney has created the cartoons that appear throughout Part-Time Indian, charged with the task of making them seem as though they are from the pen of Junior himself. Alexie reportedly requested Ms. Forney specifically for this book. She’s not the first cartoonist to come to mind when you picture adolescent teen boy suffering, but credit Alexie for his insight. Somehow her unabashed sexuality and love of the funny works when you tone it down just right. She’s definitely reigned in her wilder tendencies (a quick glance at her book I Love Led Zeppelin will confirm this) but she’s managed to do it without stifling herself or her natural talent. Who knew she could even draw happy pegasuses and smiley clouds? Not me. I also appreciated the subtlety in some of her cartoons. At one point we look at an image of Junior’s best friend Rowdy as he’s reading his comic books. In the picture Junior has drawn a big angry face yelling, “What’re you drawing??” with the explanation, “Rowdy . . . He hates it when I draw him! Never lets me finish.” If you look at the picture carefully, though, you can see the outlines of Rowdy’s real features hidden beneath the cartoony angry face.
I’ve heard relatively little criticism of the book. A fellow librarian did once mentioned to me that the title could have stood a little more editing. There is a perception out there that when big-time authors write children’s books their editors become a little too hands-off, in deference to their already palpable talent. I don’t think that this was necessarily the case with this particular novel, though. Certainly it could have been streamlined a little more. Even as I write this I have no idea were one would begin to even do that, though. Another complaint has been that Alexie’s depiction of Native Americans in this book is less than stellar. There’s a lot of alcoholism and general misery on Junior’s rez. I dunno. As I see it, Alexie has written something based on the world he has experienced and his book takes a situation that does exist and makes it palpable. If this were the only book a person ever read about contemporary Indians then maybe there’d be a problem. Otherwise, I think you need to give the author some credit for bringing up this subject matter.
What age group is the book appropriate for? Well, there are a couple mentions of “boners” and other teen boy mechanics. And there’s some violence here and there. The book’s themes and discussion of racial and cultural issues assume that the readership is going to be old enough to digest the information. After all, this is a novel about making a decision between your culture and your future. Work in the theme of race in the twenty-first century and you’re dealing with some pretty intense issues. The book even tackles the idea of white women and whether dating one is just an expression of wanting a status symbol or if there’s more to it than that. And if that doesn’t get you then there are some pretty dirty jokes in here too. Heck, I don’t think even I’m old enough to get the one about the water fountain quite yet. Hoo-wee, mama!
I may as well just start lobbing this book at the heads of the teens I see entering my library. Anything to get them awake and noticing its existence. My objections are few and my praise strong and clear. A great title and well worth the hype it has been receiving. Go forth, my children, and read it all up. You’ll feel better after you do.
Notes on the Cover: Speaking of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (how’s that for a leap from the end of a review to its first paragraph?) let’s play compare-the-adult-Alexie-book-to-the-teen-Alexie book for a second here. Here’s the older cover:
And here’s the newer, revised teen cover:
Clearly the YA cover is the better of the two though I wonder how much the former influenced the latter. Not that the current Part-Time Indian cover was the original. If you have an Advanced Readers Copy of the book then you can see how on the first version it was a background of white, lined notebook pager. The Indian and the Cowboy were front and center, very close to the camera, and facing one another. Here’s what it looked like:
Now the book is starker. I once spoke to the fellow who influenced this change and he was very pleased with the result. Oddly, I’ve no opinion one way or another about it. I like both. Everybody wins.
- NPR interview with Sherman Alexie about the book.
- MP3 file of Alexie reading from his book.
- Review in The New York Times.