Sunday, March 23, 2008

Lifeboat Dreams

At the start of Sherman Alexie’s remarkable YA novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Arnold Spirit, Jr.’s life is one of poverty and despair, and the 14-year-old has no expectations that his life will be any different than it’s been for his father or mother or grandmother or any of the other Native American Indians whose ancestors were imprisoned on reservations centuries ago.

This culture of despair isn’t the only obstacle that Junior has to overcome. He’s born with physical handicaps, too, and he’s viewed by his fellow Indians as “weak,” a “retard,” and describes himself as “the most available loser” who gets beaten up at least once a month.

So, Junior hangs out alone, and he draws cartoons and reads, two activities that give him a kind of freedom, even if it’s only in his imagination. Reading and drawing enable him to think of a different kind of life, a life of hope, and to dream that he might be important one day, if only he can escape the rez:
So I draw because I feel like it might be my only real chance to escape the reservation.

I think the world is a series of broken dams and floods, and my cartoons are tiny little lifeboats.
Junior desperately needs a lifeboat...because without dreams, he’s going to find himself drowning in the same cycle of despair that doomed his father and mother (who he knows once had dreams, too, when they were kids but who “never got the chance to be anything because nobody paid attention to their dreams.”) Poverty, Junior understands, “only teaches you how to be poor.”

The one glimmer of hope in his life, aside from his own tough spirit (it’s no accident that Alexie gives his character the surname Spirit), is his friend, Rowdy, who Junior can depend on to protect him if he needs protection... and who he can share his dreams with knowing his best friend won’t laugh at him just for dreaming.

Life would have gone on for Junior in the way it’s gone on for years, except that on the first day of high school he opens the textbook that the teacher gives him and finds his mother’s name in it–his mother’s name–and his anger over having to live a life of poverty (that forces his class to use the same textbooks that his mother’s class used) erupts in an unexpected way:
And let me tell you, that old, old, old, decrepit geometry book hit my heart with the force of a nuclear bomb. My hopes and dreams floated up in a mushroom cloud. What do you do when the world has declared nuclear war on you?
In anger Junior throws the book... and it smashes his teacher, Mr. P, in the face... which gets Junior suspended from school.

But that act of anger initiates a chain of events that takes Junior out of poverty... because with Mr. P’s encouragement to leave the rez Junior decides he wants to flee the poverty and hopelessness of the rez and his loser status and transfer to a new school twenty two miles away in a rich, white farm town.

It’s in Reardon where Junior falls in love with a white girl and makes the varsity basketball team and... well... manages to begin living his dreams, even if his friend, Rowdy, and the other Indians on the rez don’t understand his decision to leave the only home that they know. It’s a decision that Junior almost regrets when Rowdy and his friends turn against him, treating him as if he had become an “apple,” a traitor, red on the outside, white on the inside.

Not only does his best friend become his worst enemy, but Junior feels like “two different people living inside one body.” It’s the loneliest time of his life, and he feels less and less like an Indian. But at the same time he learns that he’s smarter than most of his white classmates... and begins to see himself doing something courageous, just like his sister when she runs away from the rez to get married:
I thought we were being warriors, you know? And a warrior isn’t afraid of confrontation.
After a series of unexpected deaths–his sister’s, his father’s best friend’s, his grandmother’s –Junior reaches an emotional low point. Only after grieving in his own way–a kind of personal ceremony that he creates for himself making lists of people and things that give him hope–does he gain the insight that he needs to keep going.

In the end, Junior develops the confidence that he needs to carve his own path, though not before feeling the shame of defeating his best friend on the court–Reardon beats Wellpinit by 40 points, and Junior shuts down Rowdy–and having to deal with feeling “like one of those Indian scouts who led the U.S. cavalry against other Indians.”

This is an amazing story, not just because Junior finds hope in a nearly hopeless situation, but because of the way Alexie portrays Junior's internal struggle for self-respect and shows readers what Junior comes to discover as a result of this struggle: beneath different skin colors, everyone shares similar hopes and dreams.

For more information about Sherman Alexie, visit his website:

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