I read to find out about other people. I know I grew up in a middle class family, in a suburban area, and fortunately met people who redirected the trajectory of my life. If I want to read about people similar to myself, I should just put down my book to remain in my own little cocoon.
The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, takes the raw materials of his own life to fashion a story of love, loss, high school, and basketball. Arnold Spirit aka ‘Junior’ narrates the story telling the story of his birth with hydroceles (water on the brain), his decision to attend a white high school far from his reservation, and the impact the decision has on his relationships. Cartoons also help tell the story as Arnold uses his drawings to show his emotions and support the humour used to combat bullying by both the white kids and even the reserve residents.
I read a few stories from The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and seen Smoke Signals, the film based on one of the tales in the collection. Alexie does not hold back on things like racism, sex, or poverty. The novels honesty lead to challenges and outright bans in school around the US, and I wouldn’t feel surprised if someone in Canada held the book and shook their head. One of the memorable passages from the book concerns poverty as Junior bluntly outlines its destructive power:
It sucks to be poor, and it sucks to keel that you somehow deserve to be poor. You start believing that you’re poor because you’re stupid and ugly. And then you start believing that you’re stupid and ugly because you’re Indian. And because you’re Indian you start believing you’re destined to be poor. It’s an ugly circle and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Poverty doesn’t give you strength or teach you lessons about perseverance. No, poverty only teaches you how to be poor. (p. 13)
The novel made me laugh, left me shocked, and taught me a lot about constructing voice in a novel. Sherman Alexie mined quite a bit of the plot from his own life, which included his decision to attend a high school off his reserve. His reaction to a library banning his book? Sending a box of books to the same place. People talk about young adult literature as too grim, too broody, while to him they are ‘written in blood’. YA literature needs novels like this one to show heroes don’t always get it right, friendships will survive changes, and art leads the way out of tragedy.