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

Cover of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Captain’s Log:

Module 15

Port of Call: Alexie, S. (2007). The absolutely true diary of a part-time indian. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.

First Lines: I was born with water on the brain. Okay, so that’s not exactly true. I was actually born with too much cerebral spinal fluid inside my skull. But cerebral spinal fluid is just the doctors’ fancy way of saying brain grease.

Summary: Arnold “Junior” Spirit is an indian teenager living in the town of Wellpinit on the Spokane Reservation. He is frequently bullied and only has one friend, Rowdy, who is always getting into fights. Junior’s life is hard, his family lives in poverty, and yet he is still fighting off the apathy and hopelessness he sees overwhelming others. He draws cartoons (often included and providing greater insight in the book) and on his first day of high school he gets so mad at seeing that their textbooks are 30 years old that he throws a book and accidentally hits the teacher. His teacher comes to see him afterwards and pleads with him to get off the rez while he still has that energy and anger to want to change inside of him, so Junior switches to Reardan High School in an all-white town 22 miles away. Seen as ‘betraying’ his people, his friend Rowdy stops talking to him, and he is outcast by the rez society even more than he already was. On top of that, he must try and fit in at his new school in the face of oftentimes blatant racism.

A Cartoon drawn by Junior

First Impressions: This was the first book I have read from the perspective of a modern native american living on a reservation. I knew living conditions were poor, but had no idea how poor. This book is semi-autobiographical for Sherman Alexie, and I found it to be a fascinating, sometimes horrifying read. I read this book very quickly and would be very interested in reading a sequel.

Suggestions for use: This is a story about persevering in the face of adversity so I would recommend it be read by teenagers having trouble fitting in. I also feel this book addresses culture-clash and race issues in a powerful way, so this book is recommended for pretty much anyone else – we all deal with racism at some point in our lives.

Reviews:

Publishers Weekly: “/* Starred Review */ Screenwriter, novelist and poet, Alexie bounds into YA with what might be a Native American equivalent of Angela’s Ashes, a coming-of-age story so well observed that its very rootedness in one specific culture is also what lends it universality, and so emotionally honest that the humor almost always proves painful. Presented as the diary of hydrocephalic 14-year-old cartoonist and Spokane Indian Arnold Spirit Jr., the novel revolves around Junior’s desperate hope of escaping the reservation. As he says of his drawings, “I think the world is a series of broken dams and floods, and my cartoons are tiny little lifeboats.” He transfers to a public school 22 miles away in a rich farm town where the only other Indian is the team mascot. Although his parents support his decision, everyone else on the rez sees him as a traitor, an apple (“red on the outside and white on the inside”), while at school most teachers and students project stereotypes onto him: “I was half Indian in one place and half white in the other.” Readers begin to understand Junior’s determination as, over the course of the school year, alcoholism and self-destructive behaviors lead to the deaths of close relatives. Unlike protagonists in many YA novels who reclaim or retain ethnic ties in order to find their true selves, Junior must separate from his tribe in order to preserve his identity. Jazzy syntax and Forney’s witty cartoons examining Indian versus White attire and behavior transmute despair into dark humor; Alexie’s no-holds-barred jokes have the effect of throwing the seriousness of his themes into high relief. Ages 14-up.”

Staff. (2007). The absolutely true diary of a part-time indian. Publishers Weekly, 254(33), 70.
School Library Journal: “/* Starred Review */ Gr 7–10— Exploring Indian identity, both self and tribal, Alexie’s first young adult novel is a semiautobiographical chronicle of Arnold Spirit, aka Junior, a Spokane Indian from Wellpinit, WA. The bright 14-year-old was born with water on the brain, is regularly the target of bullies, and loves to draw. He says, “I think the world is a series of broken dams and floods, and my cartoons are tiny little lifeboats.” He expects disaster when he transfers from the reservation school to the rich, white school in Reardan, but soon finds himself making friends with both geeky and popular students and starting on the basketball team. Meeting his old classmates on the court, Junior grapples with questions about what constitutes one’s community, identity, and tribe. The daily struggles of reservation life and the tragic deaths of the protagonist’s grandmother, dog, and older sister would be all but unbearable without the humor and resilience of spirit with which Junior faces the world. The many characters, on and off the rez, with whom he has dealings are portrayed with compassion and verve, particularly the adults in his extended family. Forney’s simple pencil cartoons fit perfectly within the story and reflect the burgeoning artist within Junior. Reluctant readers can even skim the pictures and construct their own story based exclusively on Forney’s illustrations. The teen’s determination to both improve himself and overcome poverty, despite the handicaps of birth, circumstances, and race, delivers a positive message in a low-key manner. Alexie’s tale of self-discovery is a first purchase for all libraries.”
Shoemaker, C. (2007). The absolutely true diary of a part-time indian. School Library Journal, 53(9), 190.
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Muchacho by Louanne Johnson

Cover of Muchacho

Captain’s Log: Module 7

Port of Call: Johnson, L. (2009). Muchacho. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.

First Lines: I seen Miss Beecher today at the library checking out a old lady’s book. She had her head tipped down so I couldn’t see her face real good but I knew it was Beecher on account of her hair is the exact same color as a car I stole once. Bronze metallic. Beecher doesn’t look like a regular librarian but at least she didn’t look like she was falling off a cliff the way she did most of the time back when she was trying to be a teacher.

Summary: Eddie Corazon is a Mexican-American living in one of New Mexico’s poor neighborhoods. He grew up surrounded by crime, gang bangers, and racism, and is struggling to even graduate high school. Eddie has a lot of cousins, including his primo Enrique who once shot a man in front of him, but his cousins are also a lifeline, forming a protective gang of their own that keeps them from being forced into a life of drug running. Eddie starts to find purpose in his life when he meets Lupe, an incredibly smart and beautiful girl who thinks he’s interesting, and who opens his eyes to the possibilities he has, if only he could get his life on track. Slowly, Eddie begins to change himself, and to become a man his family, Lupe’s father, and himself can respect.

First Impressions: I was hesitant to get into this book because I assumed it would be depressing. However, the story was much more upbeat and meaningful than I anticipated. Now I think this is a very carefully constructed book with a number of useful messages about shaping your own destiny, no matter the terrible circumstances you find yourself in.

Suggestions for use: Definitely a powerful book for inner-city kids, teenagers in difficult neighborhoods, and very empowering for poor latin-americans.

Reviews:

School Library Journal:

“Gr 9 Up— High school junior Eddie Corazon and his Mexican-American family live in a crime-infested town in New Mexico where kids are often pressed into service as drug runners if found on the streets alone. Eddie has his older cousin to look out for him, and he tells of the day when he was eight, and felt so proud to ride along with Enrique, drinking beer and smoking. But when Enrique stopped the car, knocked on a door, and shot the man who opened it in the face, young Eddie messed his pants, “smelling the stink of hopelessness that hung around my life.” Eddie is now in an alternative high school and brandishing his role as juvenile delinquent until he meets Lupe, a bright girl with dreams of college. Keeping her as his girlfriend is the impetus for change, but poignant memoirs of a caring former teacher and the book The Four Agreements play a major role in Eddie’s transformation into a reflective honor student. In the end, the future appears hopeful for the teen, though his change is a bit too didactic as he writes, “you can open a book and follow the words to some new place.” Sometimes the first-person narrative is disjointed, and the story and characters don’t always ring true. While the content may appeal to reluctant readers, the nonlinear story line will be a challenge. Also, the heavy-handed message could be a turnoff, and the numerous allusions to contemporary literature, while interesting, will be lost on most struggling teen readers.”

McClune, P.N. (2009). Muchacho. School Library Journal, 55(9), 162.

Kirkus:

“An experienced English teacher, prolific writer and speaker, Johnson gives life to a sensitive, contradictory character, Eddie Corazon, a Hispanic teenager—”muchacho”—overcoming the obstacles that thousand of adolescents face as high-school students in the United States. Eddie lives in a diverse and hostile environment. He is challenged every day by peers of different ethnic backgrounds and lifestyles at his alternative school for at-risk students. Some of them envision their future in the streets and are not afraid to end up in jail, but others dream of graduating from high school and attending college. Eddy is crossed by different emotions, but perhaps a book, a teacher and a girl—”Lupe full of grace”—will make a difference and transform one of the most challenging and distressing periods of his life into a new beginning. Eddie’s first-person narration and street language will hold teenagers’ interest. Set in New Mexico, one of the states with the highest drop-out rates among Hispanics, this novel unveils the social pressures and struggles of teens living in inner cities.”

Kirkus Reviews, September 1, 2009, retrieved from NoveList database October 19, 2010