Life on “The Rez”

(second in a series on banned books…)

Coming in at Number Two on the American Library Association’s list of most frequently challenged books for 2012 is “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie.

It’s a young adult novel whose fourteen-year-old narrator, Arnold Spirit, Jr.–aka “Junior,” is not-so-loosely based on the author himself. Junior lives on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington. He was born with water on the brain and wasn’t expected to live past early childhood. Junior is short and skinny, he stutters and he talks with a lisp. He’s also very bright, all of which makes him a target for bullies. If not for his roughneck best friend Rowdy, Junior might not have made it into adolescence.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that life on “the rez” is a dead-end.

“You start believing you’re poor because you’re stupid and ugly,” Junior tells us.  “And then you start believing 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.”

But Junior is determined that he will do something about it. He decides to enroll in Rearden High School, twenty-two miles from the reservation, where he will be the only Indian other than the school mascot.

Problems arise, of course. No school bus comes to the rez to carry ambitious Indians to Rearden. Junior’s father can drive him there, if he’s not drunk. Problem is, Arnold Spirit, Sr. is almost always drunk. Even in the morning. And even if he weren’t, he rarely has enough money to buy gas. Most days, Junior hitchhikes to and from school. Sometimes, he has to walk much of the way.

The other big problem? Most of the folks on the reservation consider Junior a
traitor for leaving. He becomes an outcast in Wellpinit, even with Rowdy. And
he doesn’t fit in with the rich white kids at Rearden, either. Until they find out how well he can shoot a basketball. Which, not surprisingly, leads to further complications.

“Part-Time Indian,” first published in 2007, is a National Book Award winner and continues to be widely praised by critics. So why the controversy? What made it come in near the top on the list of books some adults want removed from library and bookstore shelves?

We could start with the fact that it’s peppered with profanity. And sexual references. Rampant alcohol abuse. Grinding poverty. Senseless violence.
In his short life, Junior has already attended 42 funerals. Life on the rez is
bleak, and Alexie doesn’t sugarcoat it. But he also presents Junior’s coming-of-age story in a way that’s both humorous and hopeful. And Ellen Forney’s
illustrations–supposedly drawn by Junior, who is also a budding cartoonist—are
wonderful.

To my way of thinking, this book is too “mature” for most middle school-aged readers. But if I were teaching high school, I’d use it for sure. And I’d fight tooth-and-nail against those who continue to try to have it removed from classroom shelves.

(September 15, 2013)

 

 

 

 

 

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