Laughing over coffee: Response to Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian”

When I saw this book on the reading list for my class, I knew that I had to read it immediately.  Over the Christmas break, I’d been listening to a radio interview on the CBC with Sherman Alexie, author of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian.  The book was one that was very popular when I was working at the public library (where my definition of ‘popular’ translates to ‘I had to shelve it repeatedly’), but it was always on my list of books to look into in the future.  That list is several hundred books long, so the prospect of me actually reading …Part-time Indian was remote — until I heard the interview.  Needless to say, this book became top priority.

I say this because it is a wonderful book.  It is extremely funny, although the humour is somewhat situational and certainly will not appeal to everyone.  However, what turned me off from it initially was that it was a) about a teenage boy and b) about a sensitive and difficult subject matter for me.  Racial tension of any kind makes me uneasy, particularly when it is part of literature aimed at younger readers.  However, the main reason that I was not all that anxious to read it back when it first came out was that the protagonist is a fourteen-year-old boy.  I would recommend this book to anyone, but I think that …Part-time Indian would appeal most to men of all ages.  Some of the main character’s experiences and perspectives were hard to relate to as a woman.

Sherman Alexie based this book loosely off of his own experiences, at least certain elements like his childhood disease, the fact that he went to an all-white high school, and that he grew up on a reserve in interior Washington Sate.  Some of his anecdotes make it into the novel, such as when the protagonist, Arnold Spirit, has to be driven 22 miles to the school only to take a schoolbus back to the reserve to play in a basketball tournament, and then take the bus back to school afterward, only to be driven home again.  Alexie gives this novel a note of realism by including elements of his own experience.  He really knows what he’s talking about, or at least he makes it sound like he does.  He gives Arnold a voice that makes me imagine the young man talking to me over coffee, telling me his story about how he went to high school.  The novel is set in the present day or more recent past, however, as evidenced by the computers in the high school.

This novel is punctuated periodically by important cartoons, supposedly drawn by Arnold, that help convey the story and serve a similar purpose to a long description in prose: one cartoon is of Arnold’s parents as they might have been had they not been poor, and Arnold labels various clothing and accessories with short captions to explain their meaning.  From this one drawing, the reader learns a lot about Arnold and his parents without having been inundated with paragraphs that could be distracting.  In short, the cartoons made me believe all the more that this was a young man telling me this story.  He’s telling me in the first person, regaling me with narrative, but every so often, he just finds it easier to draw me a picture.  (I’m an audio-visual learner, so I found the cartoons helpful.)  This is not a picture-book or a graphic novel, though.  Calling this book a graphic novel would be like calling a play an opera because somebody sings once in awhile.

As I said earlier, the humour will not necessarily appeal to everyone.  Some might find that Arnold’s narration sounds like a school-boy, or might object because they don’t find his jokes funny.  I’m not really one to like the humour of a male teenager, but I was laughing because of how personable Arnold was.  His jokes made me think of similar things that I could relate to.  Perhaps I was just impressed by a fictional character’s charisma!

The humour is also used as coping mechanism for Arnold.  This boy suffers a lot in this book: he has a childhood disease, he grows up in poverty, his parents are alcoholics, he gets beat up a lot, he is an outcast at school, and he faces racism on a daily basis.  However, I didn’t feel like I wanted to pity him, and Arnold didn’t want pity either.  He wants acceptance and opportunity.

I do not want to discuss race issues, but I do admit that this book is culturally subjective.  Arnold is a Spokane Indian and his ethnicity is central to his novel.  Culturally, aboriginal Americans/Canadians are somewhat different than non-aboriginals, although this is true for all ethnicities.  A reader with no familiarity with aboriginal peoples, or western North American culture in general, would likely not find this novel appealing.  For me personally, the novel was eye-opening because I remembered boys at my inner-city elementary school, and wondered how much of this novel could have applied to them.  Nonetheless, the themes in …Part-time Indian are quite universal.

Most importantly, this novel is about a young man struggling for acceptance and opportunity for the future.  In some shape or form, we all want that.  We all have to overcome our past, our inner demons, and our families.  No matter our gender or race, we still have to find our identity.

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