Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
We, as a species, require fiction in all of its forms, in roughly the same way that an open artery requires a tourniquet. Well-crafted fiction has the power to take even the worst experiences a groaning, bleeding world has to offer and redeem them, dragging them into the light and unearthing the beauty inherent in resonant, sometimes brutal, truth. Emily Dickinson, an American poet with a gift for conveying simple truths with elegance and brevity, summarizes this phenomenon artfully when she declares, “I like a look of agony, because I know it’s true.” Sherman Alexie’s extensive catalog embodies this rule of thumb with finesse, skill, and grace. He doesn’t require sweeping epics in order to explore the heart of humanity. All he needs is a real-world setting and his own insightful, authentic narrative voice to wring breathtaking truth from everyday agony, searing an imprint of light and shadow into the reader’s soul.
Alexie is the author of over fifty volumes of fiction and poetry marketed to adults. His first Young Adult outing, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, consists of the open, funny, and frank confessions of fourteen-year-old Arnold “Junior” Spirit. Inspired by a conversation with his teacher to go where “people have hope,” Arnold takes an unprecedented step when he leaves his high school on the Spokane Indian Reservation to get a better education in a nearby white town.
The caught-between-two-cultures narrative is nothing new, but Arnold’s struggle to find his place among the white kids who either ignore or torment him, and the Spokane kids who shun him for leaving, is steeped in an authentic, often challenging, reality that protects the concept from falling into the bog of cliché. The ups-and-downs of Arnold’s life as a “part -time Indian,” unravel the harsh, beautiful truth that pain and joy are often closer cousins than we like to admit.
Alexie has a transfixing ability to make you laugh and wince in the same breath. He deals complex, brutal doses of the human experience in straightforward language tinged with brilliant flashes of the poetic, leaving his audience caught between the desire to devour the narrative voice and the need to slow down and soak in the light. Alexie can always be counted on for a frank, raw presentation of even the most brutal aspects of human existence, accented with a down-to-earth humor that manages to be joyful without undermining the truth in the agony.
Alexie’s Young Adult outing is a departure from the familiar shape of his adult fiction only in its choice of a high school setting and a teenage protagonist. I was pleased and relieved to find that Alexie doesn’t water down his approach for a younger audience. There were moments of Part-Time Indian in which I found myself holding my breath, engrossed in the desire to both soak in every nuance of the narrative moment and also drink in the insights hovering beneath it. He knows how to deliver a genuine, insightful punch to the gut with one hand and a moment simple, un-gilded, joyous humanity with the other. It is hard to say whether the light or the shadow in his storytelling yields the most beauty.
I am not easily star-struck. I can count the number of people whom I would be intimidated to meet in person on one hand, but I’m not ashamed to admit that Alexie is high on the list. If you have not already made it your mission to devour everything he’s written, I hope that The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian will be the experience that entices you to do so.
Sherman Joseph Alexie, Jr. is a poet, writer, filmmaker, and occasional comedian. Much of his writing draws on his experiences as a Native American growing up on the Spokane Indian reservation. He currently lives in Seattle, Washington.
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