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My promise to you is, if it's here, it's good.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

I had trouble reading this book, but not for the reason you might think. I started reading it during my middle school reading class, and kept laughing out loud. So, I read the first 3 chapters to the class, and one of the boys, who had just finished the book he was reading, asked if he could check it out. Fine, I thought, I'll finish reading it when he is done. But, as soon as he was finished, another student checked it out, and then another, and then another, and then another. This book has not been anywhere near the bookshelf. It wasn't until the last day of school that I was able to get my hands on it.

I immediately put it in my favorite reading spot (the throne room), and found myself spending extra time there. My husband occasionally came by to check on me, concerned that I might be ill. Not exactly, just glued to my seat because I didn't want to put the book down.

This is a wonderful book, with a protagonist so engaging and funny, that I kept reading to see what he would have to say about the next difficult situation he would face, because his life has been one difficult situation after another. The opening line of the book is "I was born with water on the brain." Arnold, AKA Junior, Spirit has several things wrong with him, including brain damage from encephalitis, ten extra teeth (which were removed in one sitting, since Indians are poor and the res only received access to major dental procedures once a year), poor eyesight, and a couple of speech impediments (stuttering and a lisp). He has a huge head, a scrawny body, and big feet. He gets beat up a lot, but has managed to survive in part because his best friend, Rowdy, serves as his protector.

On the first day of his freshman year, he throws his textbook and breaks the nose of his geometry teacher, because he is frustrated to find that the textbook he has been issued is so old, it has his mother's name in it. But, the teacher, instead of being mad, is glad that he hasn't given up on himself and tells him to escape now, leave the res and go to the white school 22 miles away. Junior may be a physical oddity, but he is smart. When he transfers to the all-white school, and becomes the only Indian there besides their mascot, he discovers that he is even smarter than the average white kid.

Will Arnold/Junior find friends at his new school? Will Rowdy ever forgive him? Will he survive the basketball game against his former school? Heck, will he find a ride to take him the 22 miles to the school in Reardan, or will he have to walk . . . again?

Arnold is also a cartoonist, and the book is peppered with hilarious commentary in the form of his cartoons, created by Ellen Forney.

I draw all the time.
I draw beacuse words are too unpredictable.
I draw because words are too limited.
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.
If I draw a cartoon of a flower, then every man, woman and child in the world can look at it and say, "That's a flower."
So I draw because I want to talk to the world. And I want the world to pay attention to me.
The language of this book appeals to kids, because Arnold talks like a kid. He tells his story eloquently, but in a simple, direct way, with humorous references to various bodily functions that we all have to deal with, whether we talk about them or not. Bad things happen in this book, just as bad things happen to most Indian families on the res, and Arnold tells with great honesty how he and his family and friends survive, and sometimes don't survive. The life of a reservation Indian is a world apart from that of the white kids at the school attends, but due to his humor and his tenacity, he survives and eventually begins to thrive.

The book is finally sitting on the bookshelf, but as soon as school starts in the Fall, I expect it to fly off the shelf.

This novel was written by Sherman Alexie, who grew up on the reservation that he writes about. Click on the title to visit the author's website.

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