Chalk up another plus for recent YA literature: I liked The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian enough to read it twice in the same day. I’m not quite sure whether to call this fiction or non-fiction; overall, I’d put it in the same league as Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books: fictionalized autobiography.
Not surprisingly, based on the title, this is a first person narrative told by an Indian; specifically, it’s set as he shifts from middle school to high school and starts the change from child to adult. Junior is living on the Spokane Indian Reservation, and struggling to deal with his own health problems and the social issues of living on a reservation–poverty, little in the way of educational options or job prospects after he leaves school and so on. One day he snaps when he finds his mother listed as a previous student in the usage list of a schoolbook he’s just been issued1 and lobs the book across the schoolroom. Unfortunately, and unintentionally, he breaks his teacher’s nose. Far from being angry, the teacher instead suggests that our protagonist get off the reservation for an education better than his school can give him. Junior takes his teacher’s suggestion and transfers to the all-white “good”2 school in a nearby farming community. This is a hard decision to make; the 22 mile distance between home and school without school-provided transportation (and none too reliable transportation from his parents) is the least of his problems, as the kids from his old school think he’s betrayed them for the white community, while the kids at his new school are wary of an Indian kid fresh of the rez, to put it mildly. He manages to survive his year there, despite the prejudice at school and tragedies at home and not a lot of support from either venue; punching the biggest toughest guy in school doesn’t hurt.
As with most of the other YA books I’ve read recently, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian seems too simply written3 for a teen book but then avid bookworms like me will read anyway4, read well and often. The world needs more interesting books for kids who (gently put) aren’t reading at their grade level; I can see older kids being interested in this book due to the material, but the language and sentence structure are straightforward enough that (I think) it’d be manageable for less skilled readers. The protagonist’s abilities on the basketball court at his new school seem somewhat contrived, but I’ll reserve judgment on this until I find out just how autobiographical the book is–so far as I can tell, this book is based largely on his own experience.
1the implication being that it’s at least 25 years old
2tiny by most communities standards–only a couple of hundred students–and so therefore undersupplied by most communities’ standards.
3dumbing down is too pejorative a term for a book like this
4I’d moved on to Out of that Silent Planet and Perelandra when I was not much older than kids still reading the Narnia books