Junior Spirit describes his home as “approximately two billion miles west of happy.” Yet in wanting to escape the alcoholism, poverty and despair that dominates life on the ‘rez,’ he becomes a traitor to his tribe by simply attending a better, whiter school.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie is a raw and honest look at
life on, and off, the reservation in Washington State. An awkward but smart teen, Junior chooses to leave his underfunded, crumbling Indian school for a better education and hopefully a chance at a better life. However, in doing so he is rejected by those he has left behind and never really accepted in his all-white, new school. The dichotomy of his parallel lives is so deep he even takes separate names. At home, he is Junior, a lifelong nickname that represents that his connection to both family and tribe. At school, he is Arnold, a name given at birth but never used, at least not until stepping into this world that doesn’t recognize the tribal norms Junior has never questioned.
In trying to bridge his two identities, Junior struggles to grasp the world and his place in it. His attempts to understand the flawed adults around him are relatable and often funny. Readers don’t have to be a poor, Indian kid to connect with Junior and his journey. This is a book about being on the outside and looking for a way in, themes to which any teen can relate. It explores issues of social justice and dignity, and takes a hard look at Junior’s so-called role models, all issues Kohlberg discusses as crucial issues in the post-conventional morality stage of development. It would appeal to ages of 13-16, though even an adult would enjoy the Alexie’s wry and raw writing style.
If readers have already tried and liked Diary, there are other great books on the market for picking up next. If you were drawn to Junior’s cultural and personal identity struggles, Dark Dude by Oscar Hijuelos is a great next choice for you. While grittier than Diary and set in the 1960, this book’s exploration of fitting in and standing out still resonate today.
Another next novel for Diary fans could be King of the Screwups: A Novel by K.L. Going. Rich and popular, party-animal slacker Liam is kicked out by his dad and sent to live with his gay, glam-rocking uncle in a trailer park. This is a book about reinventing oneself, high parental expectations and unexpected family bonds. Liam and his Aunt Pete are unique characters that stay with you.
This is an excellent read!