Friday, January 24, 2014

Reader Response: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian Pt. 1

Free-form reader response to The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. I selected this as my second "Contemporary Realistic Fiction" work for Teen Materials class. What I'm doing here isn't required, but I'm starting to like the process of reviewing as I go...and multiple friends have encouraged me to continue.

** Spoilers everywhere! **

Before Chapter One, this book has a creative edition notice page! Copyright, publisher, cataloging information: it's all askew in roughly the shape of a cartoon tornado.

Also, a Yeats quote in block letters with 3D shading across from the title page:
"There is another world, but it is in this one."
These are good signs.

Chapter "The Black-Eye-of-the-Month-Club"

PTI  (short for Part-Time Indian which is still too long) opens with the narrator telling readers about his medical history. He stutters, has a lisp, and wears the one style of glasses issued by Indian Health Service. He gets picked on at school, then called a "retard" and beaten on the reservation. So he hides and he reads and he draws. I see pen-drawn illustrations scattered all over PTI's pages!
"Just take a look at the world. Almost all of the rich and famous brown people are artists. They're singers and actors and writers and dancers and directors and poets.
So I draw because I feel like it might be my only real chance to escape the reservation."
As a reader, I want to know more about this kid who has been going through social exclusion, medical problems, and ethnic prejudice...but who still has so much hope and good humor and creativity. I think teen readers who identify with any of the above are going to accept this narrator and stay to listen about the other experiences.

Chapter "Why Chicken Means So Much to Me"

I figured it out. This kid needs the humor to be alive at all. Think of the saddest end of the saddest movie you saw as a kid. This second chapter tops it, already. Hmm, I should include one of the drawings both for style and a sense of why they're so important to the storytelling:


The most heartbreaking thing is that his parents' failed dreams were so modest, as dreams go. Decent clothes. Good jobs. Some appreciation from a small community. This is the most succinct, audience-appropriate explanation of generational poverty that I've read:
"It sucks to be poor, and it sucks to feel 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."
I'm still shuddering about the line in this chapter about nerves. This book hits like a flash flood.

Chapter "Revenge Is My Middle Name"

PTI is not about dispelling prejudice by showing a reservation full of decent people being kept down by outsiders. It's about showing readers that Indians don't "feel half as much pain as white people." It's about showing how oppression has come to live inside the reservation, and is perpetuating itself there.

I love this kid's friend, "Rowdy," as a character. He's a hurricane of violence and rage, but lets the narrator--the weakest boy on the reservation--stand inside the eye of that hurricane.

Chapter "Because Geometry Is Not a Country Somewhere Near France"

Sherman Alexie has an amazing ability to write light text with the heaviest undertones. It's nothing like reading John Green's characters be weepy and overly poetic about heavy topics. There are layers here. Not hidden layers, either. It's like looking at an illustration of a geological column and having one bit catch your attention, then looking up or down at what else is going on in this slice.

Somehow this chapter goes from school jitters, to masturbation, to geometry, to hiding in nooks and corners, to his sister's intriguing introduction, to worries about how high school will change his friendship with Rowdy, to a teacher's introduction, to context for "You can't teach at our school if you don't live in the compound. It was like some of prison-work farm for our liberal, white, vegetarian do-gooders and conservative, white missionary saviors.", then to book love, and finally to underfunded education.

I can't tell yet whether this will be one of those Young Adult books where none of the adults can be trusted, but it is using another technique: showing teen readers that this isn't a book approved by a committee of "give them gentle, clean reads" parents. It's more age appropriate than that.

Chapter "Hope Against Hope"

This chapter goes about two pages too long to keep from being over the top in two ways, but I was already about to break down all good-weepy by then.

Adults are not automatically enemies here. Not the white ones, anyway.

Chapter "Go Means Go"

And not just the white ones.

Chapter "Rowdy Sings the Blues"

Teen boy protagonists also deal with gender restrictions. Nice to know Sherman Alexie is clued in and sympathetic. ...and then there's this line:

"Rowdy stopped screaming with his mouth but he kept screaming with his eyes."

Junior, as I finally found out he was called a couple of chapters ago, is not lacking in either physical or social courage.

Chapter "How to Fight Monsters"

This was an interesting bullying situation. Junior knew all about one kind of bullying, but here the problem wasn't that he was helpless. The problem is that he responded in a culturally inappropriate way. The remarkable thing is that he figured it out half-way. It's an inept chapter title, but so off that it has to be on purpose.

Chapter "Grandmother Gives Me Some Advice"

That's one hell of a grandmother! Loving the way Sherman Alexie keeps thwarting expectations. A message of this book seems to be: things are bad, really bad, but not as bad as you think.

Chapter "Tears of a Clown"

This short flashback chapter could be dropped without losing anything, I think. It might depend on what the author wants to do with Rowdy's character later.

Chapter "Halloween"

In this chapter, Junior's white girl crush, Penelope, went from a 0-dimensional character to a 1-dimensional character. Progress.

Chapter "Slouching Toward Thanksgiving"

I had been wondering what was happening in the school parts of school. Junior makes a friend who could have been a quirky love interest in a John Green novel. Thankfully, that's not what happens here. This, however, does:


Librarian challenge: put this on promotional posters and t-shirts.

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