With a few exceptions, I don’t write about too many books with boys as main characters. The reason for this is pretty simple; although I’ll read just about anything (except Tucker Max…never Tucker Max), I’ve always identified a lot more with books about girls and women. However, sometimes there’s a character so vibrant, funny and original that he invades my consciousness, gender be damned! In this instance, that character is Junior/Arnold Spirit from Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.
Junior is a Spokane Indian who has “water on the brain,” a stutter, a lisp, thick black glasses and a tendency to get beat up. He’s spent his entire life on the reservation. “The rez,” as he describes it, is where Indians were “supposed to disappear.” The Rez is the home of everyone he cares about: his parents, his sister, his grandmother and his best friend, Rowdy. But for Junior, the Rez is also full of people with broken dreams or no dreams at all. “We reservation Indians don’t get to realize our dreams,” Junior says. “We don’t get those chances. Or choices. We’re just poor. That’s all we are.”
Junior is smart, funny and creative; he’s a wonderful artist who loves to draw cartoons. But on the Rez, he’s stifled and frustrated. Until his teacher, Mr. P, tells him, “You’ve been fighting since the day you were born. You fought off that brain surgery. You fought off those seizures. You fought off all the drunks and drug addicts. You kept your hope. And now, you have to take your hope and go somewhere where other people have hope.” The place Junior decides to go is the “white school” in Reardon, a town 22 miles away.
Junior captures the feeling that so many teenagers unfortunately know very well; the feeling of being stuck, like no one believes in you. Although most of us didn’t grow up on an Indian reservation, if you’re a smart kid with big dreams, there will always be people who try to pull you back, hold you down, and put you “in your place.” There will always be people around you who, instead of encouraging you to be your best, will discourage you from ever trying. They’ll do this because they’re unhappy and they can’t stand to think of you being happy. They’re paralyzed by their own inertia, and they can’t believe you’d have the gall to think you deserve something better. Sometimes, people will see you wanting something better as a rejection of them and their choices.
I was lucky to have lots of great teachers as a kid, but I still remember one teacher who had our class make a list of everything women couldn’t do. At the time, I was confused and a little depressed as she told us all that women would never be able to run as fast as men or be as strong. Now, as an adult, I’m just wondering what exactly was broken inside of her that she needed to make sure a class of 11 year olds didn’t start thinking they were hot stuff (by the way, when I came home that day and complained that my teacher had made us list the things women couldn’t do, my mom told me, “You should’ve said ‘Pee standing up.’” Zing, Mom).
In Junior’s case, people get mad at him when he wants to go to a school with newer textbooks and a better graduation rate. Instead of being proud of him for trying to get a good education, they see this as a threat to their comfortable unhappiness. How dare he think he deserves something better than daily beat-downs and alcoholic relatives? It takes a deep courage and determination for Junior to go to Reardon–not only is he the only Indian there besides the mascot, but it’s far away, and sometimes he has to walk–but, with the support of his parents, he goes anyway.
Junior soon sees that while the kids at Reardon have more money and a nicer school, they still have problems. Their problems are just different than his. Some of them are bulimic, while his family often has trouble finding enough food to eat. Some of them have cold, distant fathers, while his father is warm and funny (even if he is an alcoholic).
Though he suffers a year full of unimaginable loss and despair, Junior keeps a positive attitude. His strength in the face of heartbreaking adversity is something to admire. He learns to see the good in the people around him, despite their flaws. He realizes that although the people around him are not perfect, they’re good people all the same. Sometimes his dad is too drunk to take him to school, but Junior knows he’s loved. Rowdy might have serious anger problems, but he’s an important friend. As Junior says after cleaning the graves of his friends and family members, “I wept because I knew that I was never going to drink and because I was never going to kill myself and because I was going to have a better life…I realized that I might be a lonely Indian boy, but I was not alone in my loneliness. There were millions of other Americans who had left their birthplaces in search of a dream. I realized that, sure, I was a Spokane Indian. I belonged to that tribe. But I also belonged to the tribe of American immigrants. And to the tribe of basketball players. And to the tribe of bookworms.” Isn’t that a beautiful sentiment? None of us are alone in our loneliness.
-The book is peppered with Junior’s artwork and cartoons (drawn by Ellen Forney). Junior does funny drawings of his teachers, portraits of the girl he likes, and loving sketches of his family members.
Image via The New York Times
-I love books that deal with the dynamics of female friendship, but I also love that this book dives into the complicated nature of boys’ friendships. More punching, less crying (but still some crying).
-The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian is actually one of the most banned books. The very reasons the book is so often banned– Arnold’s frank language, his dirty jokes–are what make the book so real and so touching. So when you read it, you can feel like a rebel in the name of literacy.
Are there any books you’d like to see covered in Young Adult Education? Let me know in the comments, or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Image via Open Library