Williams Reads: An adolescent portrait of outsider identities

“I think the world is a series of broken dams and floods, and my cartoons are tiny little lifeboats.” So says Junior, the 14-year-old protagonist of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, about his passion for drawing. As Sherman Alexie’s semi-autobiographical novel and this year’s Williams Reads book selection, True Diary has been chosen to encourage discussion of diversity-related themes. With Junior, Alexie examines typical coming-of-age themes while concurrently addressing issues of identity, poverty and alcoholism through the voice of a teenager trying to stay afloat in a world whose problems threaten to drown him.

Like his protagonist, Junior, Alexie grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Wash. He attended an off-reservation high school in Reardan, Wash., where he was thrown into a community with very little diversity. Alexie went on to graduate from Washington State University in Pullman, Wash., and to become a prolific and celebrated writer. He has won numerous awards for his work in film and literature, including a PEN/Hemingway Award and an Independent Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay. Drawing on his adolescent experiences, Alexie here tells a story of finding a place and building an identity from little opportunity through the voice of his 14-year-old protagonist.

The novel opens with Junior’s life on the reservation, where he suffers attacks from bullies aged 13 to 30 and remains friendless, save his sometimes protector and friend, Rowdy. Despite his aptitude for academics, Junior faces a future much like his parents’ lives; on the reservation and without opportunity, he doesn’t have much of a chance to pursue his dreams. After Junior inadvertently acts out and earns a suspension, his teacher encourages him to seize the chance to leave the reservation and attend school in white, wealthy Reardan twenty miles away.

The decision to follow his teacher’s advice leaves Junior more alone than ever, as the community perceives his choice as an attempt to “become whiter” and reject his Indian background. Rowdy, sharing in this perception and hurt by what he considers Junior’s desertion, ends the two boys’ friendship. Junior, then, is left without any friends, and begins his education at a school filled with students of a different class and ethnicity. As he slowly learns to fit in at Reardan, winning his peers’ acceptance and friendship through his basketball skills and “semi-relationship” with the attractive and popular Penelope, he sees his life as diverging from the lives of the Indians on the reservation.

A fairly quick and easy read, the novel suffers somewhat from a rocky narrative that flows like a series of broken episodes. Junior jumps from one incident to the next without necessarily transitioning between them. Life on the reservation and life in Reardan are clearly two different worlds, but even within each sphere events feel separately conceived and then pieced together. An early incident with the upperclassman named Roger, for example, is not seemingly connected with Junior’s first encounter with Penelope, but later the reader learns that Roger is “like a big brother” to her.

The character of Eugene, too, follows this pattern: he acts as a mentoring figure several times without Junior mentioning his drinking habit, which is included only later when Junior describes his parents. This oversight makes Eugene’s alcohol-related death feel like an afterthought thrown in only to make a statement about drinking problems and Native Americans.

When Alexie explores the challenges faced by Junior, he draws conclusions worth addressing. Coming from the reservation, Junior is acutely aware of not being rich or white like many of his classmates. One scene, in which Penelope forces Junior to admit to being poor, particularly illustrates the effects of poverty on his adolescent experience. Alexie also resists painting a perfect ending for his protagonist. Junior will clearly never be as close with his oldest and closest friend Rowdy because he has chosen to pursue college and a future off the reservation. While Junior continues to struggle with his questions about identity and the future, these persistent issues are no more concluded in a tidy solution than they are in real life.

For those wanting a quick and humorous read, Alexie’s novel offers insights into life as a Native American today. The Williams Reads program will hold a community book discussion tomorrow from 4-5 p.m. at the Log. There will also be a screening of The Way West, a documentary on the final decades of the American frontier, date and location to be announced.