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March 2015

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

I wanted to live up to expectations.

That's what it comes down to.

The power of expectations.

I hadn't heard of this book until I started looking into "Best of YA Literature" lists, and it kept popping up.  As I work in a school library, I felt it my duty to give it a blat!  

The novel follows the life of a Native American teenager who is acutely aware that he is Native American.  He is also aware of all the issues and expectations that come with this.  Arnold, or "Junior" as he is also known, lives in the "poor-ass" Spokane Indian Reservation (the "rez"), and outlines for the reader (in both written and pictorial form), the depressing reality that is his daily existence.  Alcohol, violence, hardship and the complete lack of hope are the main themes, with topics discussed including (but not limited to) the potential success of his parents had they been white (teacher and musician; as Indian they are unemployed and drunk), and a tally of the average number of funerals attended by white teenagers (<3) and Native American teenagers (40+).  

The narrative is straightforward and simple, and sometimes just downright depressing.  It's a pretty confronting social commentary, but because it is told from the somewhat ironic point of view of a teenage boy, it doesn't come across as "poor-me".  The story is what it is - a realistic depiction of teenage life on a rez (and it was no surprise to discover that the author himself grew up in the Spokane rez).  

The story is not without hope, though, with Arnold choosing to leave the rez school to try the local "white" High School, Reardan, and in so doing attempt to see past the "expectations" that crush the members of his family and his community.  In choosing Reardan Arnold loses his best friend and attracts the malice of the Spokane community, but he sticks it out, learns various life lessons along the way, and realises that your own expectations count more than the expectations of others.

Keep in mind that I am from Australia, so the social commentary that forms the core of the novel came as a bit of a shock to me.  But then I could see so much of it mirrored in the plight of the Indigenous Australian communities.  It's heavy going for a young reader, so I wouldn't recommend it to those under 14, but for everyone else, including adults, it's a must!


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