This semi-autobiographical (the author claims that it is about 78% accurate), 2007 story chronicles the coming-of-age struggle of a 14-year old Indian boy, Junior, who is trying to make it out of the Res. The author, Sherman Alexie, employs (appropriately) a straightforward first-person narrative which I found captivating and perfect. The perspective was unique to me and will definitely not be soon forgotten. This is a short story, but it has made an impact on me that contradicts it’s page count. It is also a Young Adult novel that I hate to classify with the books that surrounded it in the library. Like To Kill a Mockingbird, this novel can transcend age barriers. These books are soulful journeys, while the others are merely creative stories. As another fan of the book put it, ‘this quick read is anything but simple’.
Before I delve into the book, I also want to highly recommend the audio version, performed by the author himself. It was a great experience and though I haven’t read the written version (which is said to have some great cartoon illustrations), I can’t help but feel that the audiobook is the best way to experience this novel.
Our main character, Junior, was born with Hydrocephalus (water on the brain). This life-threatening brain damage as a baby led to numerous seizures, and a susceptibility to further brain damage. He is also odd-looking, with huge feet and a too-large head. Despite this, he is the smartest kid on the reservation, a cartoonist, and a pretty good basketball player. He gets picked on and bullied, but his only friend, Rowdy, oddly enough the worst bully of them all, is his protector. The setting, the Wellpinit Reservation in Spokane, Washington, was extremely interesting, as most new settings for me are. So many parts of Res life were shown to be hopeless and sad, but Alexie also showed the wonderful parts of it: The close-knit groups that know everything about each other, the humor, and the strong bonds that can be formed between them.
Junior’s life changes drastically on his first day of class when he opens his textbook and finds that it has his mother’s name written inside it. The book was over thirty years old, and at that moment Junior realized the hopeless path his life was on. That was his last day at the Res school. He transfers to the all-white and much, much better school 22 miles away in Reardan, a move that betrays his fellow tribal members and earns his further alienation from that life. Junior has a hard time at first with his classmates and is looked down upon by everyone.
We experience all parts of Junior’s life. His troubled friend, Rowdy, his part-to-full time alcoholic parents, his depressed and basement-dwelling sister, as well as his hopes and fears and all the random thoughts in between. Opening that textbook brought the hopelessness of life-on-the-Res on him full-force, but eventually, it was also became the poignant moment that changed his life. It led to the path off the Reservation, away from his way of life, and therefore to hope.
The rest of the book doesn’t contain a happy story of trials and success, but nor is it depressing and hopeless. It really is the absolutely true diary of a part-time Indian, funny and sad, and I highly recommend it.