Let’s keep this “old-made-new book review” ball rolling.  There’s a definite “academic” edge to all these old grad school papers–an unavoidable result of their being written with a different audience in mind.  I liken the impression you’re left with after reading someone’s school papers to a metallic aftertaste: it masks authorial voice through affected use of whiz-bang vocabulary.  I hope my “academese” doesn’t decrease your enjoyment of these.  (If you didn’t to begin with, please read the preceding as a sing-songy rhyme).  Next up–Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

Review

One of the hardest things in writing to define is the property of “voice.” The other building blocks of writing–be it grammar, form, or even metaphorical language–all operate on well-defined formulas that can be learned and taught by methods of rote memorization. Voice, however, defies easy classification and simple pedagogical approaches. It is the Holy Grail of good writing.

The challenging nature of voice made it very pleasant for me to read Sherman Alexie’s, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. “Junior” Arnold Spirit, the protagonist, has one of the most vivid, well crafted voices that I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing. It is a voice that frankly–some would say bluntly–explores the awkward, frustrating, heart-wrenching, and triumphant experiences of a teenage boy. In addition, Arnold presents the rather unique perspective of growing up poor on an Indian reservation with an alcoholic father, dealing with a community that openly disdains him for wanting to better his life, and coping with a barrage of several senseless and sudden personal tragedies.

Though Arnold meditates on social injustice, feelings of despair, and deeply existential questions, his voice never becomes self-pitying or histrionic. There is a tone of self-deprecating humor that runs throughout the book, and is seen especially clearly in the wonderful illustrations with dead-pan captions. Arnold claims that drawing pictures helps him to make sense of the world around him, and we are invited to witness the fruits of this intimate process first hand.

Perhaps what struck me most after my reading of the book was an appreciation for the resiliency that Arnold displays. After being abandoned by his best friend, Rowdy, experiencing the deaths of both his grandmother and sister, and dealing with the grim realities of having an alcoholic father, Arnold still manages to do well in school, become a star basketball player, and make new friends at a nearly all white school. These are significant accomplishments, especially when we consider the context in which they occurred.

Near the end of the book, Arnold is reminiscing about a time when he and Rowdy climbed the tallest pine tree on the reservation. This pine tree is located near Turtle Lake, which Arnold explains has mythical and ghostly stories associated with it. When Arnold and Rowdy reach the top of the pine tree, they marvel at the beauty surrounding them and their ability to see it all at once. This is, in my opinion, the perfect analogy for what Arnold has experienced in the book up to this point. As an Indian going to a nearly all white school, Arnold never feels truly at home at school or on the reservation. Like being at the top of a pine tree, suspended between the heavens and the earth, Arnold is somewhere between the two cultural worlds of Whiteness and Indian-ness. Though this is often a lonely position for Arnold to be in, it is important to note that Rowdy climbs the tree with him. The implication is that Arnold doesn’t have to leave his cultural roots behind him when striving to better his life. It is also important to note that what eventually tears Arnold and Rowdy from their tree-top reverie is Rowdy’s fart. This comical event parallels Arnold’s struggle to transcend his environment while constantly being drug back down to it by personal tragedy and cultural/familial loyalties.

Although this book broaches some controversial topics in a casual, almost flippant tone, I would absolutely have my students read it. In my opinion, the best way to develop a distinctive writing voice is to experience powerful voices in writing, and learn from their example.

Teaching Ideas

  1. This idea is inspired by the wonderful illustrations found in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. As a homework assignment, I would have my students pictorially describe an event that occurred in their lives within the past month. They would have to draw a depiction of the event, write a few captions (humorous or serious), and then write a paragraph explaining their experience in using this medium as a means of communicating an experience and associated feeling(s). This assignment would hopefully positively engage members of my class less comfortable with pure, written expression.
  2. This classroom activity would hopefully start my students thinking about cultural diversity and how we define culture. I would split the class up into small groups of four students. I would then ask these groups to consider and discuss the following question: What are 3 essential aspects of American culture that define what it means to be an American? After allowing for discussion time, each group would present the results of their discussions, backing up their choices with solid arguments. The more varied the choices, the better, because after each group presents we would discuss as a class the heterogeneous nature of American culture.
  3.  As a choice for an end-of-unit project, I would offer my students the option of researching a sub-culture in America and presenting their findings to the rest of the class. A prerequisite for this project would require whatever subculture chosen to be “school appropriate”, i.e. no profanity, sexual content, references to substance abuse, etc. The students’ presentations would answer the following questions:* How is this a subculture? * How does this subculture interact with surrounding sub-cultures/cultures. * What are the qualities/characteristics/practices of this sub-culture that distinguish it from others? * How is this subculture like your own culture? This assignment would hopefully further my students’ critical thinking processes regarding defining what culture is.
  4. This teaching idea would take advantage of a supplementary text: the documentary, “Black Indians: An American Story.” The students would watch the documentary in class, and then write a short one page paper responding to its depiction of the interplay/intermixing of cultural identities toward a common purpose. The documentary would be especially pertinent to our reading of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian because it depicts the injustice done to both African American and Native Americans by European culture during the early portion of U.S. history.
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