Saturday, December 31, 2011

Favorite Gift #6: The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

The book I wanted to buy and give to all my friends last year was World War II RAF veteran and recipient of the DFC, Geoffrey Wellum's First Light. There are rarely books I feel this strongly about. I mean, I loved Skippy Dies by Paul Murray, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and raved about it to anyone who listened. But I wasn't quite as passionate about it as First Light.

Well, I've finally found one of those. It's by one of my favorite authors, Sherman Alexie, and it's called The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. It was given to me as a birthday present by Ruth, whose judgement on books is one of a handful that I trust. If she thought I'd love it, then I would. I just didn't know how much.

Let me tell you a quick story about Mr. Alexie, if you're not familiar with him. Here's his Wiki bio, but I read Reservation Blues in high school and my signed copy of the book was the only book I took with me to college so that it'd be the first one on my dorm shelf and would make me feel at home. As someone from a small town in Washington state, who knows the places Alexie describes intimately, and who studied about Native American history and culture in the limited confines of my elementary, junior high and high school classrooms, and who questioned her identity as a Chinese-American growing up in a small, conservative town on a regular basis, Alexie's writing resonated with me like no other's.  To top that, I met him at a book signing at Seattle's famous The Elliott Bay Book Company and he was warm, friendly and took great care to spell my name correctly, citing his friend's similar spelling as a reason for him to check. I think in my excitement of meeting him, I babbled something incoherent and embarrassing about spelling it however he wanted to because it "really didn't matter". He kind of just looked at me. I think Ruth has a story in a similar vein of meeting him.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is actually classified as YA (that's Young Adult, for all you fellow colleagues in book publishing who don't work in the States) though I recently demanded that my senior citizen of a mother read it as well. It's a book that anyone, male or female, of any age, could appreciate. It follows Junior, whose tragic life on a poor, desolate, Indian reservation in Wellpinit (eastern Washington) is chronicled in a series of anecdotes told in the first person and illustrated by rather amusing cartoons (drawn by Ellen Forney). I'm guessing, though can't confirm every detail, that the book is based on Alexie's own experiences of growing up in Wellpinit and the tragedy that faced him, his family, friends, and community at every turn. I have always known that the treatment Native Americans have received and continue to receive, and the racism they have faced, is brutal, shocking, and unfair. But this book just magnified that by ten, when you realize it's a child, not an adult, relating these experiences.

Alexie's words in this book, like his others, are poetic - not flights of fancy poetic, but metaphors that are firmly rooted in reality as well: "So I draw because I feel like it might be my only real chance to escape the reservation. I think the world is a series of broken dams and floods, and my cartoons are tiny little lifeboats." To me, it's impossible to read that sentence and not feel your heart break.

Above all, this book is funny. Alexie's comic timing is impeccable. Disbelief and anger are played out not in obvious displays of rage and sadness, but comedy and sarcasm. A lot of sarcasm. When Junior describes the destitute state of his school on the "rez" and his teacher who often falls asleep in front of the television, forgetting to go to school and thus, failing to teach, he says: "Yep, we have to send a kid down to the teachers' housing compound behind the school to wake Mr. P, who is always conking out in front of his TV ... And yeah, I know it's weird, but the tribe actually houses all of the teachers in one-bedroom cottages and musty, old trailer houses behind the school. You can't teach at our school if you don't live in the compound. It was like some kind of prison-work farm for our liberal, white, vegetarian do-gooders and conservative, white missionary saviors."

So this book, which moved me to tears on at least four different occasions, will be the book I buy and pass on to friends in 2012. Thank you, Ruth, for passing it on to me!

No comments

Post a Comment

© angloyankophile

This site uses cookies from Google to deliver its services - Click here for information.

Blogger Template Created by pipdig