The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

September 19, 2010

Cari Boatright Rerat, Book Review: 'Diary' a heartbreaking, inspiring tale

By Cari Boatright Rerat
Globe Columnist

JOPLIN, Mo. — The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

By Sherman Alexie

For teens and adults

Editor’s note: “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” was recently banned by the Stockton board of education. This column is meant to review the book, not speak for or against the board’s decision.

Arthur “Junior” Spirit is 14 and has lived on the Spokane Indian reservation (the rez) his whole life.

He was born with too much cerebral spinal fluid or, as he puts it, “water on the brain,” which causes him to need surgery at 6 months old and then to have seizures later. Junior also has a stutter and a lisp. Not to mention that he’s far-sighted in one eye and near-sighted in the other.

Basically, Junior is an awkward kid who gets picked on and beaten up a lot. But he’s also smart and funny; he’s a cartoonist who believes that “the world is a series of broken dams and floods, and my cartoons are tiny little lifeboats.”

Junior has always gone to school on the rez and has never really thought about the quality of education he’s getting until, on the first day of high school, he gets his geometry textbook. Inside he reads, “This book belongs to Agnes Adams.”

Agnes Adams is Junior’s mother. This means that his geometry textbook is at least 30 years older than he is.

He realizes then, and with the help of his geometry teacher, that he will never get the kind of education he needs if he stays in the rez school. He’ll end up just like his parents who were born on the rez, dreamed of getting off the rez, and will end up staying on the rez for their entire lives.

Fortunately, the best, non-rez school in the area, Reardan High School, is only 22 miles away. Unfortunately, Reardan is an all-white school where “the only other Indian is the school mascot.”

Despite his apprehension about how he’ll be accepted at Reardan and his best friend hating him for leaving the rez school, Junior makes the decision to go.

Things are rocky. As anticipated, Junior is an outcast at his new school. He’s met with hostility and racist remarks by some and is treated as if he’s invisible by others.

What Junior wasn’t expecting was being considered a traitor by everyone on the rez. When Reardan plays basketball against the rez school, the entire rez crowd turns their back on Junior when he walks through the door. Literally.  

Now he must figure out how to be part of his tribe while trying to do what’s best for his future. Junior’s diary is not easy to read Ñ bad things keep happening to him in school and in life Ñ but I am so thankful that I did.

Sure, I cried like crazy at the end (to the point that I was glad that I was alone during my sobbing, snot-nosed mess), but it was completely worth it. Junior’s story of being poor, of having to decide between what is easy and what is best, and of having to deal with the consequences of that decision is told truthfully, with humor.

His story is told with the kind of humanity that I think we can all recognize whether we’ve lived through similar situations or not. Alexie does an excellent job of capturing the teen voice and making Junior a real person on the page. The illustrations in the book are both poignant and funny and the audio version, read by the author, is excellently performed.

This book touched me for a lot of reasons, but mostly it touched me because I feel like I know Junior. I feel like his story is part of the stories of many teens who come into the library, sit in the hand chair, and tell me about their days and their lives.

I am so thankful that authors like Sherman Alexie share stories like Junior’s because there are countless teens in the U.S. and in Missouri who need the kind of hope that Junior’s narrative provides.