Thursday, 24 March 2016

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, by Alexie Sherman

Having finally given up on a vastly overdue copy of this in my school library, I admitted defeat and brought a new copy, and I'm so glad I did because this is required reading. This is such a vital, eye-opening novel that looks at poverty, privilege and the power of encouragement and self belief.

Part autobiographical, Part Time Indian follows an eventful year in the life of Junior, aka Arnold Spirit, as he makes the metaphorical leap from the reservation high school to the white high school on the reservation border. Odd looking, a bit brain damaged, poor, but with a quick mind and a talent for baseball offence, Junior is an anomaly. As a narrator, he is hilarious; sarcastic, wry, honest. His stories are told with accompanying cartoons that illustrate his points. His cartoons show, in a way that words can't really, how ingrained, how accepted and how ordinary racism is to Junior's community. It shows that racism doesn't have to be abuse, violence and prejudice. It can be neglect, a lack of opportunity and embedded, inherited apathy.

The plot follows Junior as he tries to fit in at his new school. We see him struggle to make the 22 miles to the school gates through poverty, we see him overcome bullying and grow as a basketball player. We see his family change and dwindle, as tragedy claims some of Junior's closest. We see his ups and downs with his best and only friend Rowdy, another rez Indian who's the toughest, angriest kid in Wellpinit and the sole reason Junior escapes multiple daily beatings. There are things Junior achieves, realisations that he comes to and resolutions that he makes. It's a pretty tough journey for Junior who is something of a trailblazer by doing something as apparently ordinary as transferring schools. He's a classic underdog, and who doesn't love an underdog?

I loved Junior as a character. His style of narration is so endearing and memorable. Alexie does a brilliant job of showing Junior's conflicted feelings about his actions. He's determined to divert his life away from the reservation path that's laid out for him, determined to achieve, to get away- but in doing so he feels that he's betraying his race, his tribe and his family. Most of the community feels that way too. To do well is to live a white life, and that's a traitorous thing to do. He's a very conflicted character. Junior describes the grim poverty of the reservation; the alcohol, the violence, the tumbledown houses. But when he climbs the 150ft Pine Tree by the lake, he's struck by the breathtaking beauty of the place. Home. Identity. Life in general. It's a complicated thing.

It's a funny, tragic story of a kid who dares to look for a life that society deems him undeserving of. It looks at implicit, everyday racism, the racism of lowered expectations and making do, the social and community differences between cultures and what it's like to be a teen boy growing up. And changing schools. And being disabled. And not white. Lets just say he's up against it. The surrounding cast of family and friends add a realistic feel to Junor's dilemmas and conflicting loyalties. His mum and dad love him, they try so hard, but they don't have much to work with.

This book is essential for all teen and adult readers. The novel really shines a light on hidden privilege. So the kids at Rearden are just normal, small-town Pacific Northwesterners, but we're acutely aware that just by virtue of not being Indian, they already have that vital head start in life. They're from a small boring town- but they have potential, expectations, ambitions. To Junior, these are alien concepts. They're things that Indians just don't have by default. Indians have casinos, drinking problems and unhappiness. Their lives are mapped out for them and usually end in violent alcohol related deaths.

I think the thing I'll take away from this book is that oppression doesn't look like slavery, like persecution or like imprisonment. It can, but it doesn't have to. Oppression can be inherited and/or accidental. Oppression can be the removal of self worth, either presently, to an individual, or collectively, historically even. Oppression lasts a lot longer than a genocide or a law or bill.

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