When I was in graduate school, I read through my roommate's collection of children's literature. On nights when I wanted to read, but really didn't want anything above a 5th grade level, I had Rohl Dahl and Lemony Snickets to entertain me. It was wonderful. I ventured into the lovely children's section of our college library the other day, seeking young adult (YA) books that are required for an upcoming YA writing workshop. One of them was Sherman Alexie's recent national book award winner The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.
I read it in a day.
Told in the insecure, flippant, observant voice of 14 year-old Arnold Spirit, Jr., this book is a perfect combination of funny and deep. When on the first day of school Junior receives a geometry textbook that his mother had used in school, he decides he needs to find a new school, not on the Spokane reservation where he lives, but 22 miles away, at all-white school called Reardon where, he says, the only other Indian is the mascot. His best friend on the rez, and many others, view him as a traitor for trying to get a better life, and at one point Junior comments that people confuse trying to make a better life (which involves being around white people) with trying to become white. He talks about poverty, racism, the high death and alcoholism rates on reservations, and being Indian in America--huge subjects, dealt with deftly and with humor--and often with illustrations. Junior is a cartoonist, and his drawings appear throughout the book to illuminate his life. Junior sees and reports all of this, but his gaze is loving, as when he reports of his parents "they didn't love me perfectly, but they loved me the best they knew how."
I can see why this book was chosen for the National Book Award. I didn't want to put it down.