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A coming-of-age novel that's worth the read

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Posted: Sunday, November 25, 2012 12:00 am

Recommending adolescent fiction is a tricky business. For a work of young adult fiction to be consistently engaging, it must explore themes that address the inevitable transition into adulthood: the search for identity, relationships, success and failure and loss and suffering.

As a result, many powerful works with young adult protagonists are deemed unacceptable for study precisely because they address those critical issues.

Sherman Alexie's "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian," published in 2007, is a prime example. As I read it, I thought how wonderful it would be to teach, but I also knew that some of its themes would not pass the bias reviews of those who make determinations of what is suitable for young readers.

Arnold Spirit, the 14-year-old Native American protagonist, reveals the challenges in his life from the beginning. He is hydrocephalic, has 42 teeth, and size 11 shoes by third grade, making him not only an exceptional child, but also the target of much bullying on his reservation in eastern Washington. To his credit, he endures the abuse stoically, maintaining an admirable resiliency.

By ninth grade, however, a white teacher at the reservation school recognizes Arnold's academic potential and sharp mind, and tells him to "leave the rez forever," prompting Arnold to transfer to an all-white high school 22 miles away in Reardan, where he spends the rest of his freshman year.

Relationships are crucial to Arnold's development. On the reservation, his parents provide support, but his best friend, Rowdy, feels that Arnold is a traitor for transferring schools. Arnold makes three good friends at Reardan: Roger, a star athlete; Penelope, a pretty young classmate who suffers from bulimia; and Gordy, who, like Arnold is highly intelligent and who becomes Arnold's intellectual soul mate.

Throughout his 9th grade year, Arnold struggles with his divided identity as a Native American from a reservation immersing himself in the white subculture of Reardan High School.

Despite his social, academic and athletic successes (he is a pure shooter and starts for the basketball team), tragedy is also part of Arnold's freshman year. His beloved grandmother is killed by a drunken driver, his sister dies in a mobile home fire when she is too drunk to respond, and his father's best friend is shot to death during a drunken argument with a close friend. Arnold has harsh words for the scourge of alcohol on the reservation, and he struggles mightily with grief over these losses.

Illustrations are an integral part of the book. The artist, Ellen Forney, assumes the visually creative aspect of Arnold's persona. Very early in the book, Arnold says, "I draw because I want to talk to the world." The drawings bring out Arnold's sarcasm, sensitivity, and his desire to define himself in his fragmented life.

"The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" is an important book, not only because it deals with Native American culture, but because it also tells universal truths about young adulthood. Alexie balances the pain of coming of age with the joys of defining oneself and becoming more human.

Healy taught English at Dubuque Senior High School for 35 years. He is the author of "Becoming a Master Teacher: A Guide to a Successful Career in the Classroom," published by Hickory Grove Press.

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