I have to say, either Sherman Alexie or his publishers have terrible, terrible, taste in cover art. Or perhaps I’m just a philistine…
In any case, I distinctly remember seeing The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven several times while browsing at my local library as a teen – and passing it up each time. Why? Because the cover art consisted of a coloured plastic toy cowboy and a coloured plastic toy Indian, seemingly randomly placed on an orangey-yellow background that, I guess, must have been the sun or the sky. All very symbolic, but utterly uninteresting to a bookish Asian-Canadian girl with absolutely zero interest, nostalgia, or cultural referent for these plastic toys (TV was streng verboten at our house, and besides, I am too young to have seen the series. And I may have found the Lone Ranger silly).
Now, in my thirties, I continue to have no interest or nostalgia for the plastic Cowboy and Indian toys which, as you can see, grace the cover of The Absolutely True Diary. But I’ve since read Sherman Alexie’s short stories and so I picked up the book anyhow, read the first few pages, bought the book immediately, and started pushing it on people like it’s some kind of drug. It’s that good.
Arnold Spirit Jr. (or “Junior”) is a Native American teen (or, as we might say up here, “a member of the Spokane First Nation”…) living on the Spokane Indian Reservation. He is also a wimpy, nerdy, goggle-glassed, teen boy of delicate-health, with a penchant for drawing and wordsmithing. Needless to say, he gets beat up. A lot. By young children, by kids his age, by drunken jerkface grown men, and (it seems) by everyone except for his family and his best friend, Rowdy. And then, one day, Arnold decides to take what many see as the first step in leaving and rejecting the reservation…he decides to go to school off-reserve with the rich white kids in Reardon.
The book more or less starts with Arnold’s decision to go to school in Reardon, and the challenges he faces from both the Reardon kids and the Spokane kids, but it is a mistake to stop there and assume that the Spokane/Reardon friction is the mainstay of the book. The book is about Arnold’s life as a whole – so it is just as much about a kid growing up on a reservation.
I don’t want to spoil it for you, but it ain’t pretty.
Alexie does cover mature themes that have resulted in some school libraries banning the book entirely (or so says Wikipedia). And frankly, with all of the sad and anger-provoking things that happen in the book, Arnold’s story could easily have been maudlin, sensationalist, or just plain depressing. Thankfully, Alexie writes with humour and a compassion (and when I say this, I am thinking of the description of “come-passion” in Betty Smith’s Joy in the Morning) that negates pity, tolerance, and other words that are tinged with disdain or superiority.
It’s been a few years since I bought my copy, but I still pick it up and read passages at random…and it still makes me smile, laugh, sigh, and get very, very still inside. Read. This. Book.
Reading Ages: I read it when I was about 35. I loved it instantly. The language is pared-to-the-bone direct. Because of the “mature themes” (i.e. death, alcohol, death, racism, and death) a parent may want to be prepared to have some serious conversations with thoughtful children, especially younger children who may not be prepared to read about family deaths.
Rating: A+. This book is an absolute must-read.
Illustrations: Did I mention that this book is illustrated? It is. The illustrations add tremendously to the humour and the personality of the book…they make Arnold Junior’s wit and self-deprecation come to life in a vivid and immediate way. It’s not a “graphic novel” in the sense that it is more prose than panels, but the illustrations add so much that – as much as I love Alexie’s prose – I cannot imagine this book without Forney’s illustrations.