Jan 09, 08
Read in December, 2007
You can credit Junior with this much; he's not a complainer. Not really. I mean, sure he was born with an enormous head, gigantic feet, crazy eyes, ten more teeth than normal, a stutter, and a lisp . . . . but hey, have you ever seen the guy's cartoons? They're great! Junior isn't the most popular kid on his reservation but he does all right. That is, until the day he snaps after finding his mother's maiden name in an old junky geometry book. Oddly, the teacher he lobs the book in the face of isn't angry. He just tells Junior in no uncertain terms that it would be in his own best interest to leave the reservation. Some way, somehow, he has to get off and make something of himself. Junior's no fool. He's perfectly aware that leaving the rez will be seen as some kind of a betrayal to his friends and neighbors, but the next thing you know he's applied to Reardan. Reardan is a rich, white school where the only Indian is the school mascot. Joining Reardan means that Junior has figure out what he wants from the world, what he needs from his family, and what he should do with his life.
As for the writing, it's top notch. This kind of subject matter requires a seemingly effortless mixture of laughter and tears. Sherman Alexie manages to deliver this, so that a funeral for Junior's grandmother is just as full of outright guffaws as it is pain and distress. Alexie also knows how to wield a delightful one-liner. "PCs are like French people living during the bubonic plague." Or about a bulimic girl who tries to cover it up the odor with gum, "She just smells like somebody vomited on a big old cinnamon tree." Finally, when Junior talks about cartooning as an art, he isn't dinking around. I enjoyed the section where he explained that "If you speak and write in English, or Spanish, or Chinese, or any other language, then only a certain percentage of human beings will get your meaning. But when you draw a picture, everybody can understand it."
Since Part-Time Indian received the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, it has gotten its own fair share of attention. This is great since I felt that cartoonist Ellen Forney clearly needs as much of it as she can get. Forney has created the cartoons that appear throughout Part-Time Indian, charged with the task of making them seem as though they are from the pen of Junior himself. Alexie reportedly requested Ms. Forney specifically for this book. She's not the first cartoonist to come to mind when you picture adolescent teen boy suffering, but credit Alexie for his insight. Somehow her unabashed sexuality and love of the funny works when you tone it down just right. She's definitely reigned in her wilder tendencies (a quick glance at her book I Love Led Zeppelin will confirm this) but she's managed to do it without stifling herself or her natural talent. Who knew she could even draw happy pegasuses and smiley clouds? Not me. I also appreciated the subtlety in some of her cartoons. At one point we look at an image of Junior's best friend Rowdy as he's reading his comic books. In the picture Junior has drawn a big angry face yelling, "What're you drawing??" with the explanation, "Rowdy . . . He hates it when I draw him! Never lets me finish." If you look at the picture carefully, though, you can see the outlines of Rowdy's real features hidden beneath the cartoony angry face.
I may as well just start lobbing this book at the heads of the teens I see entering my library. Anything to get them awake and noticing its existence. My objections are few and my praise strong and clear. A great title and well worth the hype it has been receiving. Go forth, my children, and read it all up. You'll feel better after you do.