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Monday, April 21, 2014

Don't Ban This Book!


I just finished a terrific book entitled The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. It isn't my usual cup of tea, being a Young Adult novel. It was written in 2007 and got rave reviews. It won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature along with many other honors.

The reason I read it now is because it was recently banned by the Meridian School District SW in Idaho. It has also been banned in a few other places although when they tried to ban it in Billings, Montana, kids and teachers rose up to protest.

I was curious to know what in the world would get a book banned in 2014 when kids have access to the most crass and ugly material in movies, on t.v. and on the internet. They can watch YouTube videos of actual sex, watch Miley Cyrus sticking out her tongue while twerking, read 50 Shades of Gray, massacre bloody victims in video games,not to mention the real life horrors such as hearing about the dead bodies of first graders in New Town or seeing the corpses of children in Syria. So, I'd say kids are pretty sophisticated these days in the ways of sex and violence. I figured The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian must be pretty bad to be considered too tough a read for today's teens and pre-teens.

Diary is the semi-autobiographical story of Arnold Spirit who is growing up on a Spokane Indian reservation. Almost everyone on the "res" is poor. the majority of them are alcoholics (like Arnold's father). Indians on the reservation die young. Arnold has been to 42 funerals by the time he's 14 and alcohol was involved in most of them.

Arnold sees his future laid out in front of him if he doesn't find another path so he transfers to the white school in Reardon, 22 miles down the road from the reservation. His parents do all they can to help him get back and forth but sometimes they don't have the money for gas money and sometimes his father is too drunk to remember to come pick him up. Sometimes, he hitches rides but sometimes he has to walk the entire way.

He lives with a foot in two different cultures and both are painful. The Indians consider him a traitor who thinks he's too good for them so they beat him up and call him names. His best friend, Rowdy, turns on him. Meanwhile, the whites in Reardon treat him as if he doesn't exist.

But he perseveres. He excels in his classes and eventually, excels on the basketball court. His white classmates start to consider him one of them. When his beloved Grandmother Spirit dies, the tribe softens and quits picking on him. A short time later, his sister dies burned to death in a fire, too drunk to save herself. It only makes Arnold more determined to make something different of his life although it hurts because he acknowledges that he can only do that by abandoning his people.

Through everything that happens to him, Arnold draws funny and satirical cartoons as a way to talk to himself about the meaning of the events that happen to him. The book is enhanced by the illustrations of Ellen Forney by means of Arnold's cartoons.

Sherman Alexie did escape the res. He has won numerous awards for his writing, films and poetry in the years since he wrote the book.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is funny and sad and poignant and inspiring from one page to the next. You root for a boy for whom life has been so harsh to find the path for which he's paid so dearly.  Alexie's dialogue of a 14-year-old boy is dead-on. He's irreverent and wistful and joyful and agonized by turns.

But sometimes he uses curse words and sometimes he talks about "boners" and masturbation (find me a 14-year-old boy who doesn't) and he's brutally honest, both about the way whites treat Indians and the way Indians treat themselves, as if they've been so ground down and put down so often, they've given up everything they used to be proud of in themselves.

Some people don't like the cussing and some people don't like the sex and some people don't like the honesty.

But kids love Arnold and his story. They relate to him. They have written testimonials about Diary being the first book they ever got totally caught up in.

I'm generally against banning books in schools unless they have no "redeeming social value" whatsoever but a book that encourages kids to read, that captures their their imagination, that touches their heart. No, no, you never want to ban a book like that!


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