Friday, January 11, 2008

An Absolutely Truly Good Book

I was going to combine two books into one post again, but I went on so long on this one, I need to split the posts up. But both books are about boys coming of age. And because both authors well remember what it was like to be a teenage boy, both books have passages that may raise an eyebrow or two in some teacher/parental circles. Boys, on the other hand, won't bat an eye and will eat these books up. And both are also those rarest of things: books for older teenage boys that will make them laugh. Out loud, even. We don't get very many of those. (I don't know if they'll admit this, but they'll probably shed a tear or two, too. At the very least, they'll want to.)

The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
4Q 4P    J/S (recommended for 8th grade and up)

Let me introduce you to Arnold Spirit, otherwise known as Junior. He's a teenager growing up on the Spokane Indian reservation with an alcoholic father, a fantastically intelligent mother who gave up her college dreams, a wise grandmother, and a sister who spends her life in the basement dreaming (or giving up on her dreams) of being a writer. They are, like so many on the rez, very poor - in everything but love. That, they have plenty of. Junior is not a fine physical specimen. He has fluid on the brain, too many teeth, bad eyes, a stutter, a lisp, and seizures. He enjoys drawing cartoons, reading, basketball, and masturbating (he's upfront about that, so I might as well be, too). He is also very intelligent. The day he walks into his new geometry class and discovers that the textbook he is using was his mother's - which means it's at least thirty years old - is the day he decides he wants something more out of life than this. More than that, he deserves something more. The only way he can get it is by leaving the reservation and going to Reardon, the all-white school twenty miles away. His parents are supportive, but nobody else is. Even his only friend, Rowdy, is angry at him for betraying his tribe. When he gets to his new school, he's even more of an outsider than he is at home. Nobody knows what to make of this odd looking Indian boy. But slowly - very slowly - Junior begins to find a place in this new school. He's befriended by a boy who is even geekier than he is (he gets off - really gets off - on visiting the school library), he joins the basketball team, and he even gets a (lily white) girlfriend. But when he travels with his new team to play his old team on the rez, he realizes that some people will never forgive him for having dreams. But nothing they or life can throw at him will stop him from working to make those dreams come true.

This book is exactly what the title says it is: Sherman Alexie's slightly fictionalized version of his own life. There's a great deal of sadness and violence in it, which comes with the territory when you're writing about a life where everyone is poor, many are alcoholics, and most have given up their dreams. But there is also a tremendous sense of humor and hope.

A few random quotes:

[Rowdy] likes to pretend that he lives inside the comic books. I guess a fake life inside a cartoon is a lot better than his real life. So I draw cartoons to make him happy, to give him other worlds to live inside. I draw his dreams.

Prelude to a fight:
It was lunchtime and I was standing outside by the weird sculpture that was supposed to be an Indian. I was studying the sky like I was an astronomer, except it was daytime and I didn't have a telescope, so I was just an idiot. Roger the Giant and his gang of giants strutted over to me...I stared at Roger and tried to look tough. I read once that you can scare away a charging bear if you wave your arms and look big. But I figured I'd just look like a terrified idiot having an arm seizure.

Conversations with Gordy (his geeky new Reardon friend):
"Don't you hate PCs? They are sickly and fragile and vulnerable to viruses. PCs are like French people living during the bubonic plague." Wow, and people thought I was a freak.

"I draw cartoons," I said. "What's your point?" Gordy asked. "I take them seriously. I use them to understand the world. I use them to make fun of the world. To make fun of people. And sometimes I draw people because they're my friends and family. And I want to honor them." "So you take your cartoons as seriously as you take books?" "Yeah, I do, I said. "That's kind of pathetic, isn't it?" "No, not at all," Gordy said. "If you're good at it, and you love it, and it helps you navigate the river of the world, then it can't be wrong." Wow, this dude was a poet. My cartoons weren't just good for giggles; they were also good for poetry. Funny poetry, but poetry nonetheless. It was seriously funny stuff.

I was trying to keep this short, and it's not. So I'll stop here and just add one more comment. This book has gotten a huge amount of attention, including winning the 2007 National Book Award in the Young People's Literature category. I predict it will win the Printz Award on January 14, 2008 (if it doesn't, it will certainly be an Honor book). I liked this book a lot, but I'm not really convinced that it's the best book of the year written for teens. There's a lot to like about it, and the characters, particular Junior, are unforgettable. I've been rereading it as I tried to write this up and look for appropriate quotes, and I got involved in the story all over again. There are parts that are screamingly funny and parts that are achingly sad. But still, there's a bit of a disconnect for me. I think something I read elsewhere pinpointed what it is: something about the writing style makes it seems as though it's aimed at a younger audience. Don't be fooled. This is definitely a novel for high school teens (adults, too).

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