This book was absolutely nothing like what I expected. Perhaps because the cover reminded me of The Indian in the Cupboard I erroneously assumed the story was a middle grade title. Or the inclusion of cartoons lead me to believe this would be a more mature Captain Underpants. Either way, I started the book ready to enjoy a fish out of water tale sprinkled with hilarity. Instead, I found myself reading a raw and undeniably wrenching story of the experiences of a boy growing up on a Reservation.
Junior is a budding cartoonist who is living (or is waiting to die, depending on your point of view) on the Spokane reservation. Sensing that his life would be better if he got off the reservation, he starts attending a neighboring all white school. This experience gives Junior a new perspective that allows him to reflect on his life in a way that would have been impossible if he had stayed on the reservation. Slowly he sees how staying on the reservation will alter his life. But, if he leaves the reservation, who is he out in the world at large?
The author, Sherman Alexie, himself grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington. This essential fact dramatically altered the lens through which I read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Without knowing that the author was Native American and had based his writings on his own first hand experience I fear I would have chalked this story up to researched cliches. Instead, it felt like a powerful indictment of the reservation system and highlights the devastating effect alcohol has had on the Native American population.
This book is described as “heartbreaking, funny and beautifully written.” All of those things are true. But this book does more that entertain. It shows, elegantly, that Native Americans on reservations are not unlike other marginalized populations around the world. The more we see a similarity in someone different than ourselves, the more we can work together for change. This book felt vital and important. I only regret that I had it sitting there, waiting, for so long.
Tell me, please!
Have you ever misjudged a book by its cover only to be pleasantly surprised?