What happened is, I got summer brain. I tend to be a bit perfectionistic about writing book reviews, and so after doing my one and only review of The Great Gatsby, which entailed taking notes while reading and spending a couple hours doing research and writing it, I got summer brain and didn’t feel like doing any more. But I have been reading. And I would like to have some record of what I read this summer and my thoughts about those books, so I’ve devised a reader-response method that takes the pressure off and is a little more personal.
Dear Sherman Alexie,
I loved your novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. I just finished it five minutes ago and you had me laughing and crying there at the end. I’ll admit, I’m not usually that excited about books that put me in an adolescent boy’s brain space, but I would happily live in Junior’s head for hundreds more pages if you’d care to write them.
Thank you for giving us your character’s insider perspective on life on a reservation in America. Towards the end of the book, Junior comments that reservations were designed to be death camps, that Native Americans were supposed to go there and live until they died off. And how many of them are now complying with that plan through pervasive alcoholism. I’ve never thought of it like that. I never realized how torn someone would feel who wanted to be a part of their Indian community and yet also wanted to have opportunities beyond what the reservation affords.
I was surprised by how much I could relate to Junior, even though I’ve never been the only one of my race, anywhere. But I’ve been in the tribe of the outsider in other ways. Junior reminded me that there are all kinds of tribes, and that I have connections with most people in ways I would never expect.
I felt a little stung by the character of the wealthy white man who showed up at Junior’s Grandmother’s funeral to return the pow-wow costume. I see in him the ways that (possibly well-meaning) white people love Native American culture to the point of objectifying it and making it something it isn’t. Maybe that’s not love; maybe it’s fascination, or guilt, or shame, manifested as a love for the external objects associated with Native culture, but lacking any real knowledge of any real people. I guess you can’t love Native Americans without actually knowing a Native American.
As a white person, I feel tentative and nervous around Native American culture. I don’t want to offend; I don’t know if it’s okay but I feel a little guilty about living in a city called Cuyahoga Falls that contains no Iroquois population. A quick glance at my city’s Wikipedia page makes no mention of the First Americans who lived where I do now…I guess they were long gone by the time the white people settled here. Junior’s perspective tells me that Native Americans don’t want to be saved by white people, they don’t want to be flattered by white people, they don’t want to be objects of fascination. I'm not sure what they do want, if anything. And as I write "they," I think to myself, "they probably don't all want the same thing."
What I come away with most from this book is the realization of how similar I am to Junior. We are all sloppily finding our tribes, hurting people along the way, losing people and relationships we love, forgiving people even though they will never change, and learning new things about ourselves that surprise us. Junior and I are not the same, and our differences are vast. But Mr. Alexie, if I’m reading you right, it seems that we are more alike than different.
I’m looking forward to reading more of what you wrote. Thanks for giving this book to the world.