Review by Steven Wolk
Walk into a typical middle school or high school social studies classroom and ask the kids what life is like today on Native American reservations and I am as certain as the sky is blue that you will be met by a sea of blank faces. Worse yet, walk into an American shopping mall and pluck a hundred adults at random and ask them the same question and you will get the same response. When it comes to "Indians," Americans' ignorance is monumental. (Many would be surprised to discover there are Native Americans still alive.) But a cure for our shameful willful ignorance is here to open our hearts and our minds to the lives of Native Americans while telling us a grand story: Sherman Alexie's masterful The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.
The novel is semi-autobiographical. Like Junior, the protagonist, Alexie grew-up on the Spokane Indian reservation. (All of his other books are written for adults, and one of them was the basis for the wonderful movie, "Smoke Signals.") Early on, when Junior opens his reservation high school geometry textbook in class and sees that the very same book belonged to his mom, the injustice and inhumanity and hopelessness of the "rez" confronts him smack in the face. I don’t want to say what happens next – in fact, there is very little in this story I want to give away -- but soon after Junior decides that for him to have any hope of surviving, he must attend the local white high school off the reservation. Labeled a traitor by his tribe and abandoned by his best friend Rowdy, Junior begins a new (and surprising) life at the all-white Reardon High School. Eventually, and I'll give up this morsel of juicy plot, Junior is on the Reardon basketball team and he must play against the reservation team and his former best buddy, Rowdy.
Amidst all of this is the tragedy of life on the rez. Poverty, alcoholism, drugs, unemployment, violence, death, it's all here because it's all there. Alexie writes that reservations were not created for Native Americans to live, but rather, they are "concentration camps" where Indians are meant to go to die. And yet, within all of Junior’s struggles, and the plight of his tribe, there is sweetness and hope and goodness. And Alexie is able to write of all of this and write a laugh-out loud book that will make you want to read it more than once.
A special mention must be made regarding Ellen Forney's remarkable illustrations throughout the book. Done in a doodling and comic book-style (as if Junior had done them) they add an element of child-like simplicity and humor to the story that runs completely counter – in a very good way – to the deeply serious elements in the story. This book would be great without the illustrations, but with them it is a marvel.
Only a special handful of books grab hold of you like a vise grip. They become part of that rarefied pantheon of books that everyone should read. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is one of those books. It should be required reading in every middle school or high school. It is a work of art and an absolute blast to read.