"It sucks to be poor, and it sucks to feel that you somehow deserve to be poor. You start believing that you're poor because you're stupid and ugly. And then you start believing that you're stupid and ugly because you're Indian. And because you're Indian you start believing you're destined to be poor. It's an ugly circle and there's nothing you can do about it."
I was introduced to Sherman Alexie's poetry years ago in graduate school and thought he was amazing. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is his semi-autobiographical novel, written for young adults but totally loved by this older adult. (As far as that goes, I wouldn't recommend this to a very young adult. Lots of language, etc.)
This is the story of Junior, a genius with multiple medical problems born to heavy-drinking, impoverished parents on an Indian reservation. He is rejected everywhere he goes: by the rez community because of his weird looks and brains, and by the white community outside the reservation because he's, well, an Indian. Recognizing Junior's genius, his math teacher persuades him to go to Rearden, the all-white school outside of the reservation. Junior figures that he doesn't have anything to lose, so he agrees.
The next several years become a struggle of Junior trying to get to school every day (it's 22 miles away, and his father is rarely sober and his truck rarely works) and then surviving in school. Initially he is bullied and ostracized at Rearden and even more rejected at the Rez, where he is branded as a traitor. But with a tremendous sense of humor and the ability to find superhuman emotional strength and determination, Junior knocks down one obstacle after another.
Alexie is a the kind of author that had me laughing one minute and then tearing up at the next. Junior's life is something the vast majority of us can't possibly imagine, but he doesn't ask for pity—he's just telling it like it is. We know Junior immediately. Alexie is that good at immersing us in his world and allowing us to be in his head. Junior is a cartoonist, and the cartoons sprinkled throughout the book add to that knowing of him.
I can't recommend this book enough. It will absolutely go on my Top 10 list of favorites for this year.
Some Other Reviews
The Book Smugglers: "A triumph in storytelling, filled with heartbreak but also so much warmth and I can’t recommend it enough."
Ramblings of a Writer: "The issues were treated with finesse, and issues of family, the individual and belonging added layers of wow-awesome-amazingness to this book."
The Book Lady's Blog: "What sets this book apart from the YA lit masses is that the author manages to tell a great story and explore themes about identity and culture that many authors shy away from."
Maw Books Blog: "teaches us not to be limited by our circumstances."
Brown Girl BookSpeaks: " Junior's quirky persona while coping with life and pursuing a permanent way off the rez through education provides a hopeful and uplifting tale for young people."