In some ways, it's unfortunate that Sherman Alexie's latest novel called The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian recently won the National Book Award. I don't mean to imply that it is not worthy of the award. It is and then some. But here's hoping that the sassy title will win over readers who wouldn't go near an award-winning book.
At its core, it's about a boy caught between his past and future. The story of Arnold Spirit or "Junior" is in many ways a coming-of-age-story where the protagonist is ready to grow beyond what his community can offer him. His future is different than his best friend Rowdy's, and they both know it. That doesn't keep them from hurtfully playing out the transition of their relationship, however. Rowdy must save face on the rez, so shunning and harassing Junior when he chooses to leave for another school, gives him a way to deal with his anger, sadness and jealousy. And his friend Junior understands.
One of the wonders of this story is how the author illuminates institutional racisim against the Indians. It's a core ingredient of the story, but it doesn't overwhelm the story. The events of life on the rez with the Spirit family are difficult and we cheer for Arnold Spirit as he breaks away to make a different life for himself. He is a young man who has a vision strong enough to manifest for himself. But he still feels the emotional pull to his family and life on the rez.
Junior's drawings are embedded throughout the story and are an integral part of how we come to know him. Through their graphic language, the drawings communicate the essence of the dilemmas that Junior deals with throughout the story. Pictures push the story forward and are as integral to a full understanding as the words.
The writing is masterfully simple and on target. Alexie's narrative puts us right "there" with Junior. We can feel the heat, we're at the basketball game, we know how long that walk is back to the rez. It's a story of triumph. A boy has a dream and overcomes adversity to achieve it. I highly recommend this book.