Have you ever read a book that was totally amazing, but despite being in love with it you couldn't quite figure out what to make of it? If you have, then you know how I feel about Sherman Alexie's book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.
It's an easy and quick read. I read it in several hours. But despite that, it's intense. And it's the type of book that will break your heart even as it makes you laugh. Inspired by the author's own experiences as a youngster, this book tells the story of fourteen year old Junior.
Junior has had numerous medical problems, and wasn't even expected to survive until his first birthday. In the first few pages of the book he tells the reader about the seizures he used to suffer and about his brain damage, and laughs at it. It's not that he fails to understand what the seizures and brain damage mean, but that he'd rather laugh than cry.
Perhaps because of this attitude -- choosing to laugh rather than cry, when possible -- he accepts advice from a teacher and chooses to transfer from his school on the rez (reservation) to a school outside of the rez. This means a better education, but it also means that many of his fellow Native Americans see him as a traitor. Some of them call him apple, saying that he's red on the outside but white on the inside.
Throughout the book Junior must face challenges that arise from having a foot in both worlds; that is, the world of the white man and the world of his own people. At school he's the Indian, but at home he's the kid who's going to the white people's school. This can be confusing for Junior, especially when his school basketball team (which he plays for) competes against the basket ball teams from the rez's high school.
Also confusing is that the two worlds operate differently. For example, on the rez everyone knows everybody else, but among the whites it's normal to not know your friends parents. Also, Junior knows too many people on the rez who have died violent deaths (mostly due to booze), whereas his white friends have been to maybe one or two funerals. And I haven't even mentioned the most confusing difference.
Junior deals with his troubles by drawing cartoons and sketching. These are scattered throughout the novel, and help to tell the story. Through them you can see how Junior views the world, how he laughs at the world when everything is falling apart, and how he sometimes fails to laugh and sinks into depression when something particularly tragic happens.
As I said, this book will break your heart even as it makes you laugh. I'm still not sure what to make of it, but I love it and highly recommend it.
I also want to note that despite its title, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, this book is found in the fiction section of my library.