‘Part-Time’ Lovers Are the ALA’s Full-Time Friends
Hey, all, Happy Banned Books Week! As today is Native American Day, I thought I’d review a Sherman Alexie book. I almost got to see Sherman Alexie speak at UMass Amherst a few years ago, but he came down with swine flu and canceled the event so as not to infect anyone (although, given Amherst’s namesake, that would have been an ironic albeit tragic bit of poetic justice).
Anyway, I hope you enjoy the review and find some small way to celebrate Banned Books Week in your own life. Go, read a banned book, donate a book, stage a read-in, or go on an anti-book-burning crusade with your friendly neighborhood librarian dressed as Batman and Robin. Whatever strikes your fancy.
THE DEFENDANT: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie, Illustrated by Ellen Forney
THE VERDICT: Banned from multiple US schools and libraries. The book is no stranger to the ALA’s Most Frequently Challenged Books List, coming in at #2 in 2010, #5 in 2011, and #2 again in 2012. Sherman Alexie himself also found himself on the Top Ten Most Frequently Challenged Authors List every year from 2010-2012.
THE CHARGES: Despite winning numerous awards, New York Times Best-Seller The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian has sparked controversy from all sides for everything from its sexual content to its handling of race and racism to its unsparing portrayal of reservation life (and life in general).
According to the ALA’s Spotlight on Censorship, the book has been pulled from school curriculums and library shelves in Missouri and Oregon. The book was challenged in Illinois but later returned to the school’s reading list. Reasons for banning the book include the death of the main character’s sister and grandmother, the main character’s masturbatory past-times, and explicit or offensive language.
Recently, a sweeping and outrageous law in Arizona banned almost a hundred books from K-12 classrooms in Tucson school districts, including the works of Sherman Alexie. The law stems from a somewhat similar logic to India’s tight censorship rules: Tucson finds itself in the midst of a culture war and so seeks to keep out anything that might create controversy. However, Tucson’s anti-ethnic studies law pretty much bans any character with a healthy tan. Works featuring Mexicans, Mexican Americans, Native Americans, immigrants, etc are all being stricken from the all-too-white ivory tower of Tucson’s schools.
However, Sherman Alexie has come under fire from both sides of the spectrum. I first read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian in a college class on how children were portrayed in works for children as well as works for adults. When examining this book, we read a number of articles about how some Native Americans came down on Sherman Alexie for an allegedly racist portrayal of Native Americans and reservation life. One person went so far as to compare the semi-autobiographical The Absolutely True Diary of A Part-Time Indian to The Education of Little Tree, an infamous book originally published as a Native American memoir that was later revealed to be a fictional piece by a white man who supported segregation and was a member of multiple white supremacy groups.
It seems the one thing everyone can agree on is that this book offends, though the who and the why is up for some serious debate. If you believe the critics and the schools and the parent teacher associations, Alexie both is racist and angers racists who would see ethnic studies and multiculturalism removed from curriculums. I believe YouTube’s Alex Day may best sum up Alexie’s feelings on the matter.
THE REVIEW: It seems I like this book for the same reason many parents came down on it: Alexie does not sugar-coat things. The voice of fourteen-year-old Junior sounds young, yes, but the diary format of the book allows readers to see some very adult realities through childish journal entries or doodles. Similarly, Junior’s relationships with people and the world around him are complicated. Racism exists. Life on a reservation is hard. Life when the reservation has turned against you even harder.
This book is not an indictment of any one person or group, but rather an account of all deeds done, whether good or ill. No character seems either above blame or beyond redemption. Mr. P helps Junior but regrets his previous actions as part of a ‘kill the Indian to save the child’ approach to teaching. Rowdy is a hot and cold friend to Junior and their friendship is alternately abusive and fulfilling. The kids at Reardan are privileged fools and racist bullies but, despite official or unofficial segregation, end up accepting him more than his classmates at Wellpinit had. The list goes on.
The only time Alexie flinches from details is with Junior’s medical problems. His seizures disappear for much of the book. They seem to serve only to make the character more ‘other’ and isolate him from his peers, though, so this likely is more of an issue with storytelling and characterization than an attempt to soften any blows.
My only real problem with this book comes from its semi-autobiographical nature. Much of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is based on Alexie’s own life and experiences. However, the book is set in the modern day (it came out in 2007). In cutting and pasting childhood experiences across decades, some things got lost in translation. A number of things stuck out to me as old-fashioned or anachronistic. Penelope seems torn from any 60s Spider-man comic or 80s teen movie.
Nowhere is this issue more noticeable than with Gordy. Gordy is a nerd. You can tell because he has glasses and knows how to use a computer. These reasons for ostracization don’t quite work when everyone at Reardan has an iPod and, thus, must have some amount of computer literacy. This is a problem in a great deal of children’s and teen media, in everything from Glee to Danny Phantom to Easy A, so it’s hardly Alexie’s sin alone. However, it does make Junior’s voice seem a little less genuine and may distract the reader.
In the end, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is an entertaining and harrowing coming of age story. The cartoons add a touch of whimsy to this otherwise stark glimpse of growing up caught between two worlds. The ending provides just enough resolution to be hopeful without being unrealistic.
THE DEFENSE: Oscar Wilde once said “The books that the world calls immoral are the books that show the world its own shame.” Thus, I think much of the controversy surrounding this book comes from our own discomfort with being faced with the realities of our society, its faults, its past sins, and its continued injustices. This discomfort sometimes turns to outrage when our children are faced with these truths and turn to us for answers—answers we don’t have or don’t want to tell them.
There is nothing I hate more than talking down to children. Kids are not stupid, they just haven’t learned and experienced everything adults have yet. Although, as Alexie himself and the numerous letters he has received since writing the book can attest, many children have experienced far more and far worse than most adults realize.
Protecting children from the world and its less than rosy circumstances is a short-sighted and futile goal that often comes too late. Yes, this book features masturbation, domestic violence, child abuse, poverty, racism, bullying, alcoholic parents, and the death of family members, but plenty of children (and most teenagers) are probably already aware of most of these.
The argument that this book paints an unflattering portrait of Native Americans seems outrageous to me. Junior does grow up on an impoverished reservation where alcoholism and domestic violence are big problems, true. However, poverty, alcoholism, and domestic violence are statistically prevalent problems on Native American reservations. Alexie really drives home in the book that much of this is the result of a cycle of poverty and unequal access to education and opportunity.
One of the most moving parts of the book is when Junior gets his mother’s old textbook and realizes that the rest of the world has completely written them off, regardless of intelligence or potential. His parents, his classmates, and his community never had any opportunity at another life. There is an accompanying doodle of what his parents could have been if someone, anyone, had believed in their dreams.
When Junior does manage to get the chance his parents never did and his classmates likely never will, many in his community react negatively. This reaction is hardly unique to any culture or ethnicity. Many people have mixed feelings when a member of their family or community begins on a new path.
It’s a very human reaction to be worried said person is leaving them, their values, or their way of life behind. Do the people on Junior’s reservation handle it well? No. But that’s because they’re human and just about everyone in this book, whether Native American or white, is flawed. Similarly, nearly everyone important comes around, at least in part, in the end.
The reconciliation with Rowdy is the most important. Rowdy was awful to Junior, but Rowdy’s life is terrible and, unlike Junior, he has no foreseeable way of changing it. He dealt with his frustration and jealousy in a hurtful way, but he is a teenage boy whose father clearly did not give the best example on how to deal with emotions in a healthy manner. Lastly, much of this book IS autobiographical. One can hardly fault Alexie for writing his experiences. Reality isn’t always politically correct.
As for the Arizona law, nothing is more cowardly than avoiding controversial ideas because addressing them is hard. Yes, Arizona has some serious political, racial, and cultural turmoil. But pretending that everyone who isn’t white doesn’t exist will not solve anything and will result in an uninformed generation that will at best continue and at worse exacerbate the issues their parents cannot or will not begin to resolve.