|The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
By Sherman Alexie
Illustrations by Ellen Forney
Little, Brown – hardcover, $16.99
I’ve been a Sherman Alexie fan since seeing Smoke Signals––for which he wrote the screenplay––in 1998 and reading its source material, Alexie’s short story collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. I’ve been lucky enough to see him speak several times, both at bookstore readings and at the Portland premiere of his film directorial debut, The Business of Fancydancing. His work is always equal parts funny and sad; modern, but with a mournful sense of history. Needless to say, I was excited when he published not one, but two new novels last year.
Admittedly, none of that is comics, but the second of those two new novels, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, has as its main character an aspiring cartoonist, a reservation kid named Junior (or Arnold, depending on whether he’s on the clock as an Indian or not). Additionally, it features frequent cartoons and spot illustrations by Ellen Forney, a Seattle-based cartoonist whose new book, Lust, seems to be all over the Internet at the moment. More on her in a few paragraphs.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a young adult novel centering on Junior’s split existence as a dirt-poor Spokane Indian living in Wellpinit, Washington, and a student in a white high school 22 miles away in Reardan. A nerdy kid angry at the way life on the reservation has trapped everyone he knows in either stasis or downward spirals, Junior decides early in the book to go to school in Reardan because it may well be the only way he’ll ever get off the rez. This puts him in the position of being considered an outsider both at home, where he’s considered a traitor, and at school, where he is the only student without white skin or an iPod.
Maybe I just don’t remember well what I read when I was younger, but I think that lots of acclaimed novelists trying their hands at young adult novels is a recent phenomenon. Incidentally, I read True Diary back-to-back with Nick Hornby’s recent foray into the young adult world, Slam, and the results are very different. While Hornby undergoes a partially successful change of subject matter and character (it’s hard to imagine Slam’s protagonist growing up to hang out with Rob from High Fidelity), Alexie manages to simplify his themes and style for the young adult audience without condescending, so that True Diary would make a great introduction to Alexie’s catalogue.
True Diary authentically captures the voice and emotions of a teenaged boy, helped no doubt by the fact that the story is a fictionalized autobiography. Alexie did in fact grow up on a reservation and attend a white school in the next town, like Junior was born with “water on the brain” (Hydrocephalus), and was a basketball star in high school. Like all of Alexie’s work, True Diary is emotional and strongly felt. Junior’s voice is strong and has the enthusiasm in describing everything that a precocious, curious kid would have. The enthusiasm extends to his love of fried chicken, the beauty of one of the girls in his class, and the power of cartooning, his main outlet for expression and escape from the reservation where everyone lives within a mile or two of where they were born: “I think the world is a series of broken dams and floods, and my cartoons are tiny little lifeboats.”
As that sentence suggests, True Diary is steeped in tragedy, from the death of Junior’s best friend in the second chapter to a series of other deaths and sad events throughout the book, all in the shadow of the larger tragedy of life on the reservation and the history that it is a reminder of. One terrible incident happens mid-sentence in a paragraph that had been about something else. Even in sequences that seem to be unabashedly heroic, like the basketball game in the book’s second half, there is nuance. Junior plays for Reardan and is treated horribly by the reservation kids when his team plays theirs. When, in the second game against them, Junior is the star of the game and the story appears to be heading toward wish fulfillment, Alexie pulls the rug out from under the reader. Junior suddenly remembers that, despite the Wellpinit team’s winning streak that made Reardan seem to be the underdog, Reardan is the school where all the students will be going to college and none of their parents deal drugs or beat them. They’re not the underdogs at all. Junior’s subsequent tears take the sweetness from the victory.
However, Alexie amazingly keeps the story funny all the way through. Junior’s observations of events and the people around him are consistently hilarious, and his cartoons add extra fun to the prose. He’s a smart-ass with the brains to back it up. Everyone is a target of Alexie’s wit: teachers, other students, Junior’s parents, the white kids who don’t realize how much they have and seem foreign to Junior, and those Indians who, through their actions, hold themselves back.
As for the cartoons, Alexie and Forney balance the use of text and images excellently, sometimes carrying dialogue from the prose into a cartoon and then returning to prose. As in comics, the words and pictures support each other and enhance our ability to see the world through Junior’s eyes. The hybrid is very effective when new characters are introduced, as Junior describes them while caricatures exaggerate the qualities he notices about them.
Forney’s cartoons hit just the right note, not only offering another avenue into Junior’s inner life through their content, but also informing us through their style. The drawings are convincingly rough to be the work of a novice, but show that Junior has real talent, and care is taken to distinguish between his dashed off cartoons and more finished drawings. Most of them appear on crinkled pieces of paper, taped onto the pages, a charming effect. Due to the consistency of voice between the prose and the cartoons, I assume that Alexie actually wrote them. A few are a bit too knowing to be convincing as Junior’s work in the moment, but many are funny and effectively amplify the point in the story they’re attached to. Some of the most effective are the simplest, like this one accompanying the statement, “When it comes to death, we know that laughter and tears are pretty much the same thing.”
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a wonderful example of Sherman Alexie’s work and would be a great introduction to him for young adults and grown-ups alike. It’s funny and sad, very smart and excellently written. And all the talk about cartooning makes me wonder what some Alexie-penned comics would read like. As long as it doesn’t take his attention from writing beautiful novels like this one, I’d love to find out.