Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

I am against banning books; just to get my bias out in the open. And, I was surprised recently to learn of a local high school that had banned Sherman Alexie’s first young adult novel. Sherman Alexie is an amazing and inventive writer. I am always on the lookout for his next book. If you haven’t read any of his books for adults, try Flight or Indian Killer. These are not happy, feel-good books, but they will make you think.

I read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian to find out what was so offensive about it. In the story a teenage boy realizes that his life is not going the way he wants and he is not being educated well at his school on the reservation. He decides to attend a high school in a nearby town where he is the only Native American in the student body. Major themes in the book include death, poverty, racism, and alcoholism. Secondary themes include leaving a best friend, family relationships, parental abuse, bullying, dating outside your race, and revenge among others. What an amazing book for high school students to talk about! It certainly beats the anthologies my 9th grade class had to get through.

There are a few pages of what can euphemistically be called “locker room” talk. Copying these few pages and bringing them to the school board really misses the whole point of the book. These brief detours are not central to the story and I suppose the author could have easily left them out, but then how realistic would that be in a teenage boy’s life?

My issues with the book are related to the plot in that I found Arnold Spirit’s acceptance at the all white school pretty amazing, his basketball debut as a freshman unbelievable given all his previous health issues, and the end of the book piles on too many tragedies. Still, those issues don't detract too much from the overall story. It is definitely at an appropriate level for teens and contains much less sex and violence than many young adult novels - such as the Twilight series. I did think the cartoons throughout by Ellen Forney really added to the book.

An excerpt from the book after Arnold’s team beats his previous high school and former best friend, Rowdy.

“I realized that my team, the Reardan Indians, was Goliath.
I mean, jeez, all of the seniors on our team were going to college. All of the guys on our team had their own cars. All of the guys on our team had iPods and cell phones and PSPs and three pairs of blue jeans and ten shirts and mothers and father who went to church and had good jobs.
Okay, so maybe my white teammates had problems, serious problems, but none of their problems was life threatening.
But I looked over at the Wellpinit Redskins, at Rowdy.
I knew that two or three of those Indians might not have eaten breakfast that morning.
No food in the house.
I knew that seven or eight of those Indians lived with drunken mothers and fathers.
I knew that one of those Indians had a father who dealt crack and meth.
I knew two of those Indians had fathers in prison.
I knew that none of them were going to college. Not one of them.
And I knew that Rowdy’s father was probably going to beat the crap out of him for losing this game.”

Here is the most recent news about this book being banned. Parents of high schools students, I'm interested in learning what you think: Would you want this book taught in your child's classroom?


jublke said...

I thought the article about the school board's decision was interesting. I liked the school counselor's comments -- teen problems aren't going to go away just because we ban the book.

I'm not sure how I'd feel about the book as a parent of a teen since my oldest is only seven and I haven't read the book yet. But if the book is uncomfortable reading for some teens, it seems like it might be best to discuss it in a classroom setting to get things out in the open and allay their fears/concerns, rather than have them read it on their own and keep their questions to themselves.

apageor2 said...

I'm not a parent but I do have a comment to make on this. Before I say anything I will state that I am married to a 1/4 Cherokee so I feel I have the right to speak about this matter.

Now, if the book is based on a true story then use it. If not based on a true story, get rid of it. I am tired of people trashing the Indian culture and the 1/2 truths. There has been so many issues wrong with the public school systems not following through with their teaching it's pathetic and that needs to be corrected in my opinion. If they are going to teach something then it might be a good idea to teach it correct with credited information.

Cheryl M. said...

It seems like apageor2 is saying that you can only learn from a non-fiction book and I strongly disagree with that. But that’s a big topic and better saved for another post.

Also, I think in this case a teacher was trying to do something worthwhile, but one parent complaint caused the school board to ban the book. Do you think this teacher will try something innovative again soon?

apageor2 said...

You misread what I'm stating. Consider this. Should a teacher be teaching a creative writing class and use a non-fiction book for it that is one issue. But should a teacher attempt to use a book that is teaching fantasy and not facts I think that particular teacher needs to go be retrained. I will have you know, I have my Masters in Business and am on my way to take my Doctorate in Education so this is not an issue which I take lightly.

Anonymous said...

Apageor2, no one is trying to discriminate indians in any way. i think that it is a very good story and you should get over the fat that it is racist; let's face it, it's not the only one. and by the way, NO ONE cares if you have a masters or not.

Lawrence said...

I think that there can be a lot learned from any novel, fact or fiction. There is almost always something to be gleaned from literature, whether or not it has any bearing on curriculum or anything worthwhile is often the real question.

I have read the book and found that, overall, it was quite good. The plot gaps and filler you mentioned are obviously stepping stones to making this a masterpiece, but I feel in the end that isn't the issue. The issue is whether or not this is appropriate reading for youth and whether or not it should be allowed to be part of the curriculum. I feel like, while there are better novels (in my humble opinion)that illustrate the same issues, this is the type of reading that is perfect for that age group. I remember when I was in Grade 10, seven years ago though it may have been, and I have to laugh at the younger Moss' comment.

The fact of the matter is that these are issues that kids deal with and this book is an excellent way to open up interesting discussion.

That being said, if someone doesn't want their children to read it, then I'm not going to say they shouldn't be able to; I just find it a little ridiculous that such drastic measures were taken over what I see as an essentially "harmless" novel.

I guess parents don't take issue with the murder and lust in Shakespeare. What do I know, though, I've still got many years ahead of me before I can tell other people what to do.

Anonymous said...

I may only be 15, but it sounds to me that you basically just said that all fiction books are fantasy, even if it was based on a true story, and i think they would use a fiction book for a creative writing class.

apageor2 said...

I don't feel that banning a book from reading is going to correct a situation. How does the saying go, "reading is fundamental?"

To Crystal:
If you have an issue with persons in college, get over it. I chose education because I wanted to better my horizons, intertwine it with my other skills and begin teaching after graduation.

Maggie said...

I am an English teacher currently having my students read the book. There were a few points that I thought I would add to the discussion:

First, Sherman Alexie is American Indian. The story is a pretty accurate depiction of his own life as a teenager. In fact, he has stated that he toned down some of the events in his life because he thought no one would believe him (for example, in the year of his life the novel takes place 9 friends/family died related to alcohol instead of just 3 noted in the novel).

Second, regardless of being fiction or nonfiction, writing is creative. Both have a lot to offer, regardless of race, beliefs, truth.

And finally, if students are perfectly comfortable with the learning material, what are they really learning? Discomfort is a sign of learning and processing. The question should be, "is the content in the book abusive?"

Anonymous said...

Everything in this book is fine for kids in middle school. Unless the kid has parents that shelter the him/her from the real world and has never heard any cuss words or has never seen any racism before. And this book teaches kids a lot.

Anonymous said...

I never understood people who hold strong to the belief that teenagers who read a book that doesn't completely comply with good christian values will forever be scarred and morally corrupt. The point of a book like this is to open reader's eyes to the struggles of the Native American. By shielding our children's eyes from such good reads, we are robbing them of seeing something outside of the culture they are most comfortable with.