Hi there! Welcome one and all to the Cephalopod Coffeehouse, a cozy gathering of book lovers, meeting to discuss their thoughts regarding the tomes they enjoyed most over the previous month. Pull up a chair, order your cappuccino and join in the fun.
This week marks the annual BANNED BOOKS WEEK “celebration” highlighting books that are the most challenged within the ALA, American Librarian’s Association. As many may remember, I’ve been on a mission to read banned books in 2016. I think I’ve done rather well! I cried reading PERSEPOLIS. I smiled reading AND TANGO MAKES THREE with my sons. I’ve looked at the 2015 Top Ten banned books and saw John Green’s LOOKING FOR ALASKA (read this years ago, before I got into Goodreads or blogging!) is in the top spot again, followed by EL James’s FIFTY SHADES OF GREY (read the book, own the movie), and David Levithan’s TWO BOYS KISSING rounded off the list. Food for the thought, the Bible is on the list again this year…
Anyhoo, I decided to pick up THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN, which was the top of the 2014 banned list-and required reading for my son in 2011, I’ll add. I read half the book with him, and liked it. He still remarks that it’s the only English book he finished in high school. (Jane Eyre, he claims, broke his soul, but I digress…)
Sherman Alexie’s unflinching story of Junior, a dirt-poor Spokane native teen growing up on the rez is really a fantastic look into a world most Americans forget exists. It discusses poverty, and opportunity, and hope, and despair. Showcases parents who try hard, but still fail. Highlights the stark differences between kids who dwell in a world with no expectations–versus those who have a lot going for them, and dreams that might actually come true. It’s practically a treatise on institutional racism, and how it keeps some classes of people down…forever.
Are there problems? Yes. Junior’s attended forty-two funerals in his fourteen years. His parents are alcoholics. Close friends and family die for insensible reasons, usually related to alcohol abuse. White people think he’s trash. That’s a reality of life on the rez. It’s as inescapable as his dark skin and black hair. But. Junior seeks a way out–leaving the rez to go to the nearby white high school, and he’s labeled a traitor as a result.
Honestly, this was an eye-opener. I hate using the term “Indian” for Native Americans/First Nations persons, but it’s how Junior sees/calls himself. He stands up for himself when he can, and recognizes that the white world of his white school is a very different place. There, kids have so much more, and they don’t fight, and some of them really will make something of themselves. It’s almost a foreign country compared with his rez-life 22 miles away. And yet, this community also lacks closeness and camaraderie. Junior, walking between his two worlds, remarks that he’s Half-Indian in the white world and half-white on the rez–despite being a full-blood Spokane. These subtle cultural distinctions underlie the deep prejudices in his life. He’s brave, though, and succeeds in building friendships in both places.
Why is this book on the banned list? Cited reasons include: anti-family, cultural insensitivity, drugs/alcohol/smoking, gambling, offensive language, sex education, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group, violence. Additional reasons: “depictions of bullying.” Well, I that “sex education/sexually explicit” complaint is pretty weak, considering Junior makes a couple references to masturbation. And anti-family? Junior loves his family, despite their dysfunction. I saw fantastic bonding moments, in all their tragedy. Regarding cultural insensitivity: There are some gay slurs, and I’m not super thrilled about that–though there are other moments when Junior talks honestly about homosexuality in the Native community. Also, it was others calling Junior “gay” as a slur, and he rolled with it; bigots were always painted as such. There’s violence, and bullying, none of which seemed extreme. Junior was a target, and he endured some rotten moments, sure. Offensive language falls out of my 14 y/o son’s mouth on the regular–if you hang around boys you’re not gonna be shocked by the few F-bombs on the page.
Ultimately, this book opens a window on contemporary life in Native reservations, and the view isn’t good. I think it’s honest, and troubling, and it makes me want better for all these folks. My great-grandfather escaped reservation life in the 20s. He lived to be 36, dying after several bouts of pneumonia and leaving behind his widow and my grandmother–aged 8 at the time–at the outset of the Great Depression. The stories I’ve heard from family painted a bleak picture, but Junior’s world is even more despairing. Though his experience isn’t the same as that on all reservations, because his sister finds another rez that’s better off. That said, the whole book is an emotional rollercoaster that I rode for the span of a day. The story is completely accessible, with evocative language and fearless art, and I’m glad it was required reading for my eldest. I expect my other boys to pick it up in their turn, and have a copy on my shelf awaiting them.
Interested? You can find THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN on Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and bookstores and libraries everywhere. It’s a National Book Award winner, a best-seller, and a banned book.
I hope you’ll tell me if you’ve read a banned bookrecently–or if you’re inspired to do so, now! Be sure to check out the best books from my fellow Coffeehouse reviewers below. Thanks for popping in, and keep reading my friends!