ElCicco #CBR5 Review #48: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian: A Novel by Sherman Alexie

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The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is Native American poet Sherman Alexie’s semi-autobiographical novel about a Spokane Indian teen from the reservation. Arnold Spirit (aka Junior) is different from the other kids on the reservation, and not just because of the condition he was born with. Arnold is different because he has hope and dares to leave the rez to attend the all-white high school in town. Filled with humor, sadness, hard truths and enduring hope, this YA novel, which won a National Book Award last year, is an inspiration for those who feel different and alone.

Arnold was born different. As an infant he had hydrocephaly, and he has had medical and speech problems through his life, problems that made him an object of bullying on the reservation. Arnold likes to read, draw (illustrations by Ellen Forney) and play basketball with his pal Rowdy, also from the rez and a really tough kid. When Arnold starts his freshman year in Wellpinit high school on the reservation, his frustration with the poor, outdated resources at the school causes an incident that ultimately leads to his decision, with his parents’ support, to attend the white kids’ public school in town. Arnold’s decision causes anger and resentment on the reservation, especially from his friend Rowdy, but others like his sister and his dad’s friend Eugene seem to understand and admire his drive to live his dreams.

The novel covers Arnold’s first year in high school, which turns out to be eventful and surprising in both good and bad ways. Arnold spends a lot of time alone and learns to handle it. He also finds some surprising allies at his new school Reardan, gains some confidence and discovers skills he hadn’t realized he possessed. One of the powerful messages of the book is the importance of parents and adults in developing young people’s self confidence. If expectations are high and the adults in your life show that they believe in you, it’s amazing what you can do.

At the same time, though, Arnold struggles with the loss of his friendship with Rowdy and a series of tragic deaths. In one chapter, Arnold addresses Tolstoy’s idea that happy families are happy the same way but sad families are sad in different ways. Arnold disagrees and the reader learns that sad statistics about alcoholism and deaths on the reservation. Arnold observes that on the reservation, they were all drunk and unhappy in the same way. Another powerful chapter deals with the basketball rematch between Wellpinit and Reardan, where Arnold has become a star. It becomes a bittersweet showdown for Rowdy and Arnold.

Alexie’s message for his YA audience (and it’s appropriate for anyone) is to make sure that you don’t let others define who you are or make you fit in some narrow category. Instead, recognize all the tribes you belong to and try to expand them. In an interview at the end of the book, Alexie says that you should be prepared to be lonely, as Arnold was when he made his decision, but Arnold found with time that the people he expected to shun him completely were part of his tribe. Arnold says, “If you let people into your life a little bit, they can be pretty damn amazing.” It’s a moving story with a great message.

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ElCicco #CBR5 Review #11: The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin

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Set at the turn of the last century, The Orchardist is a novel whose main character, William Talmadge, is a successful middle-aged apple and apricot grower in Oregon who has spent most of his life alone. His parents died by his teenage years and his younger sister mysteriously disappeared while herb-picking in the forest, leaving Talmadge devastated. He has few close friends other than the local midwife/healer Caroline Middey and a mute Native American named Clee, who comes through the territory a couple of times every year. Clee and his men capture, break and sell wild horses and help Talmadge with harvesting. It’s a predictable and satisfying life that becomes unsettled when a couple of teenaged girls, both pregnant, begin hanging around Talmadge’s orchards, taking his fruit and steering clear of contact with others. Talmadge takes pity and tries to help them, remembering his younger sister and her fate. As a result, Talmadge’s life undergoes some rather dramatic changes.

The structure of the novel is mostly linear, with occasional flashbacks to the main characters’ personal histories. Chapters shift among Talmadge’s story, Della’s (one of the pregnant girls) and Angelene’s (one of the babies). I would characterize it as a psychological novel, demonstrating the effects of abuse, neglect, hunger, fear and loss on children and young adults, and how the effects then play out through the course of their lives. Control is another theme: whether it’s men trying to dominate the landscape or tame horses, or individuals trying to assert control over their own lives or someone else’s.

I was impressed with Coplin’s character development. As the story progresses and the layers are peeled back, the reader catches glimpses of what motivates each, but  without fully knowing or understanding them. That might sound like a criticism but I think it’s good. We never fully know other people, their thoughts and desires; we can only guess, and that’s what the characters in this book, particularly Talmadge and Angelene, do vis-a-vis each other and Della. Della is a complicated young girl/woman. She seeks danger, independence, control, and revenge but she can be naive and flirts with mental illness. The chapters devoted to her were by far the most interesting in the book in my opinion. Actually, all of the female characters seem to be rather strong, extraordinary women. Talmadge’s mother defied convention by moving alone with her children out west. Caroline Middey is a successful single woman, respected in her community. Still, opportunities and rights for women were limited and could lead to extreme actions when a woman felt powerless. This is demonstrated several times in the novel.

Coplin’s writing, particularly descriptions of landscapes (which can be tedious and distracting in some novels), is lovely and evocative. A lot of this novel is pretty heavy and sort of depressing. The characters all contemplate the meaning of life and death at some point, but there’s still an edge of hope, such as in this passage:

Around her the garden was in verdant bloom; the smell of the air was almost sickening with odor, and although it was late in the day the last bees were industrious in the crocus, the birds had started their racket in the trees…. she was going to die, like all the others, and the knowledge was absorbed by the garden, which simultaneously cradled her and drew her out of herself, into the perfume, into the noise. 

This is one of the better novels I’ve read this year and would be a great pick for a discussion group.