Can't find Your Book Review? Try Google Search.



By Sherman Alexie, Art by Ellen Forney
Publisher: Little, Brown, 240 pages
ISBN: 978-0316013680

NO, this isn’t a book about Muthusamy a/l Prabakaran who likes to use “Yo, man!” as a greeting. This is a book about Arnold Spirit Junior, Native American Indian, like the ones in old cowboy shows.

Junior, though, isn’t exactly a brawny, broad-chested warrior sporting a six-pack and a tomahawk; he’s an excruciatingly thin 14-year-old living on an Indian reservation (“the rez”), with more medical issues than a hypochondriac on crack.

He gets fits, has clown feet, wrong teeth, weird eyes, a fragile, planet-size head, a stutter, a lisp – among other things. Basically, he’s someone born with a big bulls’ eye on his back.

Despite being nature’s designated victim, though, Junior is one brave kid, with dreams even bigger than his problems. Hoping to get a good education and eventually become a cartoonist, he switches from Wellpinit to Reardan High School.

For anyone else, switching schools would just be an inconvenience; but Reardan is a school that’s 35km away from the rez; a school that’s one of the best in the state; and, most importantly, a school that’s all white. And so, the Indians end up picking on him for being a “traitor”, while the whites pick on him for being, well, Indian.

Those are painful odds, and while Junior doesn’t win – anymore than anyone really “wins’” at life – he definitely gives it his best. Author Sherman Alexie shows us how Junior tackles all the highs and lows of friendship, family, teen love (or lust), gains and losses with passion, perseverance, and a painfully plucky sense of humour.

And it is a painful sort of humour, because most of the time you aren’t sure whether you’re supposed to laugh or cry or do both at the same time. Somehow, Junior manages to turn his suffering into entertainment; he talks about his very real and very many problems with a raw, honest, self-deprecatory wit that works on the heart as much as the funny bone, often quickly alternating between the two.

You’ll laugh, especially at the goofy cartoons scattered throughout the book that graphically, hilariously, and sometimes sentimentally bring whatever point he’s making to life and help flesh out the cast of quirky characters.

This is one of those books you can’t read in public because you’ll look like an idiot who can’t stop smiling, and if you end up simultaneously crying, you’ll look like a lunatic.

The writing is deceptively easy to read. Alexie uses short, sharp, and simple sentences loosely linked together in a very chatty style, so you can almost hear Junior talking to you.

It’s not actually written in diary form; it’s more like one big dramatic monologue, which luckily avoids sounding like a sermon since the messages are masterfully coated with that wry, offbeat humour.

But anyone looking for messages will definitely find them. Alexie uses Junior to make astute observations about the world, and especially about the Indians, who are portrayed as simply drinking their quiet, grey lives away on “death camp” reservations.

There are some heartfelt moments when he rails against their failings and diagnoses their problems with sociological exactitude, yet in a way that’s true to character.

In fact, his characters are always edged with psychological truth, no matter how bizarre they are, such as Junior’s alcoholic father, romance novel-obsessed sister, or his emotionally scarred best friend.

Alexie excels in concisely and insightfully bringing out truths about things like racism, sexuality, poverty, and identity through the characters’ interactions with each other. Heavy themes, yes, but written in just the right way for a young adult novel. Although, like most good books, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian can’t really be confined to one age group.

Sure, you might not want to recommend it to your seven-year-old niece, since it does have a teenager’s choice of expletives (actually more tame than the average teenager since they’re never worse than b-words), but I’d say that “old” adults would actually get more from the book than teens.

A lot of things are left unsaid, simply because Alexie’s 14-year-old narrator wouldn’t even think them, which leaves plenty of room for the reader to pick up on these things and make their own judgments.

The beauty of the story is that it can be as light or as serious as you want it to be. Clever, heart-warming, and original, this is a tale of growing up that belongs on the bookshelves of the growing and grown-up alike.