One-Minute Book Reviews

January 16, 2008

Books Give You ‘a Metaphorical Boner,’ Says Sherman Alexie’s ‘The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian’

[Warning: This review quotes lines from The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian that may offend some people. I am quoting them partly because many librarians and others expected Alexie to win one of the awards that the American Library Association handed out on Monday, and these words may help to explain why he didn't. Stop reading here to avoid the potentially offensive language.]

Alexie’s first young-adult novel won a National Book Award, but a character uses a racial slur that caused some high school students to walk out when he spoke about it at an Illinois high school

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian: A Novel. By Sherman Alexie. Illustrations by Ellen Forney. Little, Brown, 230 pp., $16.99. Ages 12 and up.

By Janice Harayda

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is as a subtle as an old television Western – say, the episode of Bonanza where Hoss has to explain to a fugitive from an Indian reservation why he can’t live on Cartwright land. Sherman Alexie has mostly avoided criticism for this and has, on the contrary, been rewarded for it with the 2007 National Book Award for young people’s literature.

It isn’t hard to imagine why: Alexie tries to fight some of the stereotypes fostered by the Westerns in this story told by an intelligent and self-mocking 14-year-old boy who transfers to a good high school in town instead of sticking with the wretched educational system on his reservation. Arnold “Junior” Spirit tells us that “in the old days, Indians used to be forgiving of any kind of eccentricity.” That includes homosexuality: “Gay people could do anything. They were like Swiss Army knives!” Alas, the goodwill didn’t last: “Of course, ever since white people showed up and brought their Christianity and their fears of eccentricity, Indians have gradually lost all of their tolerance,” although a few clung to “that old-time Indian spirit.” Arnold believes his grandmother was good in part because she “had no use for all the gay bashing and homophobia in the world, especially among other Indians.”

Alexie is giving you the perspective of a teenager here, not that of a historian. But it’s fair to ask: Isn’t he replacing one stereotype with others by saying that Indians used accept eccentricity and admire gay people but lost “all their tolerance” when white people crashed the party? Don’t such passages romanticize Indians even as other parts of the book show the bleakness of life on a reservation where Arnold had attended 42 funerals by the age of 14?

Critics have praised Alexie for creating a character with a distinctive voice. But it would be more accurate to say that he describes experiences unfamiliar to many teenagers in the sort of voice that has become all too familiar through characters who range from Homer Simpson to Junie B. Jones, the in-your-face heroine of a series of early readers.

Arnold and his friends call others “dickwad,” “faggot,” “pussy,” “retarded fag” and “major-league assholes.” A character tells a gratuitous racial joke that includes the “n” word and “f” word and that caused some students to walk out of a speech that Alexie gave in at an Illinois high school. Alexie has stood by his use of the joke with a variation on the but-it-really-happened-that-way defense, although whether it “really happened” is irrelevant in fiction: what matters is whether it works in context. And the literary impact of this book is as muddled as its politics.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian reads less like a novel than a sitcom or screenplay called “The Rez.” Alexie describes life-shattering tragedies in the same breezy tone as a date for the Winter Formal, so that the events have the same emotional weight. He leaves subplots dangling.

Many teenagers love this bestseller, anyway. Some may be responding to Ellen Forney’s amusing illustrations, and others may be titillated by its sexual references, such as the 12 uses of the word “boner.” At his new school Arnold befriends a boy who tells him that he should read and draw “because really good books and cartoons give you a boner.” Arnold plays dumb, so Gordy goes on: “Well, I don’t mean boner in the sexual sense. I don’t think you should run through life with a real erect penis. But you should approach each book – you should approach life – with the real possibility that you might get a metaphorical boner at any point.” Arnold doesn’t ask an obvious follow-up question: What if a book pulls a boner instead of giving you one?

Best line: “If the government wants to hide somebody, there’s probably no place more isolated than my reservation, which is located approximately one million miles north of Important and two billion miles west of Happy.”

Worst line: The gratuitous racial and sexual joke that includes the “n” word (which appears the bottom of page 64 in the novel). Apart from that: The last line quoted in the review above. Would any 14-year-old boy say “erect penis” instead of “hard on” when talking with a male friend? Or even have to explain what a boner is?

Published: September 2007.

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was posted on One-Minute Book Reviews on Jan. 16, 2008 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/01/16/.

Links: You can hear Sherman Alexie read from The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian at www.lb-teens.com, which also has reviews of the book and a list of the honors it has received. You may also want to visit the Alexie site www.fallsapart.com.

Furthermore: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian won the 2007 National Book Award for young people’s literature www.nationalbook.org. Alexie lives in Seattle and grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janicehaarayda.com

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A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Sherman Alexie’s ‘The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian’

10 Discussion Questions
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian: A Novel
By Sherman Alexie
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

This guide for reading groups and others was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its sale or reproduction is illegal except by public libraries, which may reproduce it for use in their in-house reading programs. Other reading groups that wish to use this guide should link to it or check the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce the guide.

Arnold “Junior” Spirit endures taunts that he’s “an apple” – “red on the outside and white on the inside” – when he leaves his reservation to go to better high school in a nearby town. But he knows he can’t let the jeers stop him. At the age of 14, he’s attended 42 funerals, and most of the deaths were alcohol-related. So Arnold tries to fit in at his new school – by going out for basketball, dating a popular white girl and befriending a fellow bookworm – while coping with tragedy at home. And if some Indians continue to see him as a traitor for leaving the reservation, Arnold eventually learns that the world has many kinds of tribes and that more than a few of them have a place for him.

Questions for Young Readers

1. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian shows a different side of American Indian life than do many other books. What did you learn about Indians from it?

2. Why does Alexie call his book the diary of a “part-time” Indian?

3. On his reservation, Alexie’s main character is known as “Junior.” But when he switches to a new high school, Reardan, people call him by his formal name, Arnold. “I felt like two different people inside of one body,” he says. Do you think Junior/Arnold was just talking about his name? Or did he feel split in other ways, too?

4. Arnold misses his best friend, Rowdy, after he starts his new school. But Rowdy doesn’t seem to want to join him there. How do Arnold’s and Rowdy’s views of the reservation – and their own lives – differ? What do you think Alexie is trying to show you through those differences?

5. At his new school, Reardan, Arnold gets to know a book-lover named Gordy, who says that “life is a constant struggle between being an individual and being a member of the community.” How does this idea relate to Arnold’s life?

6. Arnold tells Gordy that some Indians taunt him: “They call me an apple because they think I’m red on the outside and white on the inside.” What did they mean? Did their comment describe Arnold accurately?

7. What’s the purpose of the humor in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian? Why does Alexie use it when Arnold is clearly angry about a lot of things?

8. Arnold’s math teacher at Wellpinit High School, Mr. P, tells him that the teachers at the school used to beat the Indians with a stick: “That’s how we were taught to teach you. We were supposed to kill the Indian to save the child.” What did he mean?

9. Alexie uses a racial slur (the “n” word) and strong language (the “f” word) in a joke on page 64. He repeated the words in a talk at an Illinois high school, and some students walked out. Alexie apologized to anyone he had offended but stood by his use of the words in his novel “because that was what was said. And to blunt the hatred of that insult blunts the incredible obstacles my character had to face,” a newspaper reported. (“Author Defends Using Slur, but Apologizes to Students,” by Melissa Jenco, Daily Herald of Arlington Heights, IL, October 6, 2007.) Do you agree with Alexie that in order to make his point, he had to use words that would offend some people? How do these words relate to the rest of the novel?

10. What did you think of Ellen Forney’s pictures for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian? What is their purpose in the book? Do they provide a mirror for the text, reflecting back only what you read on the page? Or do they expand it? How?

10. Arnold falls in love with Penelope, a beautiful white student. In Greek mythology, Penelope married Odysseus, the hero of Homer’s The Odyssey. If you’ve read about Penelope in that book or others, how does she resemble the student in this novel?

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian: A Novel. By Sherman Alexie. Illustrated by Ellen Forney. Little, Brown, 229 pp., $16.99. Ages 12 and up.

Published: September 2007. A review of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Jan. 16, 2008 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/01/16/. A paperback edition is scheduled to appear in September 2008.

Links: You can hear Sherman Alexie read from The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian at www.lb-teens.com, which also has reviews of the book and a list of the honors it has received. You may also want to visit the Alexie site www.fallsapart.com.

Furthermore: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian won the 2007 National Book Award for young people’s literature. Alexie lives in Seattle and grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books from editors, publishers or authors, and all reviews and guides offer an independent evaluation of books that is not influenced by marketing concerns.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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January 15, 2008

Why Did the American Library Association Snub Sherman Alexie?

Did Alexie’s young-adult novel finish out of the medals because it uses the word “boner” 12 times? Or because a character tells a vicious racial joke that includes the “n” word?

By Janice Harayda

Sherman Alexie never really had a shot at winning the 2008 Newbery Medal, which honors the most distinguished work of literature for children (specifically, for those under the age of 14). The material in his The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is too mature for many children in that age group.

But Alexie was a favorite for the American Library Association’s Michael L. Printz Award for young people’s literature, which honors a book for an older audience and went to Geraldine McCaughrean’s The White Darkness. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian won a 2007 National Book Award www.nationalbook.org. And it was mentioned repeatedly in the Mock Newbery contests held by libraries in the weeks before yesterday’s awards ceremony.

So a lot of people were surprised when The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian finished out of the medals at the ALA’s midwinter meeting yesterday, receiving neither a major prize nor an honor-book designation. Did the novel lose because it uses the word “boner” 12 times? Or because a character tells a vicious racial and sexual joke that includes the “n” word and caused some students to walk out of a speech that Alexie gave at an Illinois high school in October?

Tomorrow One Minute Book Reviews will review The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian www.lb-teens.com, including comments on parts that might given pause to the ALA. Please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed to avoid missing this review. One-Minute Book Reviews normally reviews books for children and teenagers on Saturdays but may depart from this policy when books make news. Its reviews of books for adults will resume on Thursday.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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