This month, we read Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, a story about Junior, a teenaged Spokane Indian, which was inspired by Alexie’s own experiences. The Books Unbound (B.U.) members were impressed with the book’s unorthodox and honest approach to issues like racism, classism, death, sexuality, and more. Read the round up below for main discussion topics, creative projects, and the Books Unbound member rating!
Main Discussion Topics and Insights
Cultural Exposure to American Indians
It was clear that reading this book far surpassed in quantity and quality any other exposure that B.U. members have had to American Indians. Like so many other states across the country, South Carolina’s rich indigenous history lingers in the names of our streets, natural formations, and businesses — Edisto, Stono, Kiawah, Wando, Etiwan, Catawba. But beyond words, not much else of American Indians’ legacies, including those of our local tribes, is passed on to our formal or informal educations. None of the B.U. members has ever met an American Indian. They didn’t know reservations existed, let alone why they existed. They didn’t know about the prevalence of alcoholism and gambling in reservation life. This book showed them a way of living that they hadn’t registered before.
Even still, they found commonalities between Junior’s experiences and their own. Some were related to coming of age, like first crushes, participating in school sports, making new friends, and struggling to keep old friends. Others transcended age, like destructive coping mechanisms, institutional marginalization, poverty, and the deaths of loved ones. They realized that even though people come from backgrounds that differ substantially from their own, they can share similar circumstances.
One of the reasons The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is so appealing to young adult readers is because its use comedy of makes seious issues digestible. The B.U. members
were huge fans of Alexie’s masterful, darkly comic prose, as well as artist Ellen Forney’s equally dark and hilarious illustrations. I defined dark humor, and we discussed how its presence in this book complemented events in Junior’s story. What’s more, they appreciated Alexie’s down-to-Earth language that refused to tiptoe around controversial issues like sexuality.
Rural Poverty vs. Urban Poverty
The B.U. members noted, thoughtfully, that poverty looks different for Junior, who is in a rural environment, than it does for impoverished people in a big city. They thought it seemed much harder for him to access better opportunities. In particular, they were struck by his lengthy commute to Reardan. In the city, everything is closer to each other. If a student wants to transfer to a better school, there is likely to be one within 10 miles of his or her current school. But for rural students, attending a better school is made more difficult by the logistics of sheer distance.
B.U. members also pointed out that not only did Reardan have a better school, it had more professional opportunities because it was more urban — or at least suburban — than Wellpinit. As Cody Weber states in “What I Have Learned From Photographing 400 Towns in Iowa: An American Story”, when you’re poor in a city, “there is at least always the hope of personal and professional improvement,” and it seems in large part due to the simple fact that there are more buildings and organizations for people to inhabit. The next thing to strive for is right around the corner from you. That perpetual promise of a better opportunity isn’t always afforded to rural areas.
I owe my first favorite moment to YALLFest. As I mentioned last week, this was the first year that YALLFest events have extended to include incarcerated teens. The B.U. members were so fond of the authors that visited them during YALLFest that they asked if Sherman Alexie would visit them, too. I said I would certainly ask him, but just in case he can’t, I would ask him some questions they have for him.
My second favorite moment is more self-gratifying, but I couldn’t help but love how much praise the B.U. members had for Mr. P, Junior’s teacher at Wellpinit, who encouraged him to seek better opportunities. They pointed out that Mr. P served as a great mentor, and was the push that Junior needed to achieve success. It just goes to show that a little support can go a long way!
As a way to dive deeper into dark humor, I asked the B.U. members to create a short, autobiographical comic strip about an obstacle they face.
Books Unbound Member Rating
3.8 out of 5.
While the B.U. members enjoyed the book’s humor and learning about American Indians, some felt the story lost momentum towards the end.
Wondering why I used the term “Indian” here? It’s due to Alexie’s preference.