on June 13, 2013
Note: This is a review of the novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, not the teacher study guide. It was originally posted in the right place but, due to an Amazon glitch, it is now here for some reason.
I admit that, from the very first page, I read this book with a skeptical eye. Prior to reading this novel, I had nothing against Sherman Alexie, but I'm not such a fan of adolescent literature as a genre. My suspicion stems from my encounters with a growing trend, popular among professors, colleagues and administrators I've worked with, that aims to supplement, and even supplant, classic literature on high school curricula with adolescent selections like this one. It's something my high school is seriously considering at this moment and has already begun to do so with summer reading. Why? Because Shakespeare, Wolfe, Joyce, Kafka, Achebe, Tolstoy, Hurston, etc., are no longer deemed relevant to today's teens. What could a teen possibly learn from some dead Russian guy? If this book is in any way representative of adolescent literature as a genre and this trend continues to garner support from educators, we are in a world of trouble, and I'm quitting the teaching profession for good.
So, what specifically did I dislike about this book?
1) It's too shallow for high schoolers and too vulgar for junior highers. And the vulgarity is gratuitous. It didn't strike me as having any purpose other than to shock some teens and get them to think, "This book is cool, man! Shakespeare never uses the f-word!!" Is anyone edified by reading about the nocturnal addictions of a teen boy? Has our culture really become so debased? This book won several awards! I simply cannot believe it.
2) In both subtle and not-so-subtle ways, it promotes inappropriate, immature, unethical behavior. It glorifies stealing by making it seem funny and quirky. It encourages the attitude that "cursing is cool." And, worst of all, it exploits people with disabilities. An author is not free to get laughs at the expense of individuals suffering from disabilities simply because the hero of his novel is physically disabled.
3) Lastly, I find it so annoyingly ironic that some of the most politically correct folks out there, who are the first pay lip service to cherishing the diversity of ideas present throughout the world, so often take advantage of any opportunity they can to malign, mock and condemn Christianity. Christianity seems to be the only set of ideas out there that people can ridicule without being arrested by the politically correct thought police. And, many times, these people are so ignorant of what Christianity is all about. That irritates me to no end, and this book provides classic examples of that.
Adamant supporters of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian insist that this novel, and young adult literature in general, provides accessible and relevant platforms for teenagers to grapple with their most pressing existential issues---issues relating to identity, sexuality, longing, and loneliness. As an educator who is now also a parent, I would never discourage young people from engaging in close examinations of themselves and the world around them. But, why must this be done in the most irreverent, flippant, "Bevis and Butthead" kind of way? Aren't teenagers capable of more? As a young reader, some of my darkest and most enthralling forays into the human condition were made possible by classic literature, which also exposes young people to beautiful writing and complex characterization.
Other supporters of this novel argue that its infectious hilarity makes kids actually want to read. Yes, that's true. It will make them want to read more---but only more novels like this one, and that's about it, I suspect.
I'm open to being corrected on this point, but I think this book, and adolescent literature as a whole, sells teens short. Maybe it's fun, but it's not that sophisticated, and it doesn't provide the rite of passage into adulthood that classic literature does. Can it be used as a bridge to more intellectual reading? Maybe. But should it replace the classics? Absolutely not. I wouldn't recommend this book to anyone--not my adult friends, not my students, and, most certainly, not my own kids.
It makes me want to say this to the teens: "You wanna stay in teen world? Read this book. You wanna grow up? Read some Dostoevsky. That will put some hair on your chests!"