Praising The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian


I just finished up Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and it just blew me away with its voice, power and creativity. No wonder it won the National Book Award a few years back. It was one of those books that stays on the peripheral vision and then, finally, you get to it and you now know why it was always out there, waiting for you to read.

The book follows the life of high student student named Junior, who is a Spokane indian who lives on a reservation and realizes he has to get off the reservation or else he will die — either tragically and quickly (through some alcohol-related incident, he is certain) or slowly (through the loss of his dreams). So, he decides to attend school at the white high school just outside the skirts of the reservation and doors both open and close for Junior as a result. He never quite fits in with his new school (he’s the line Indian) and his friends back home (including his best friend, Rowdy, a warrior of the modern day reservation) think him a traitor for leaving their school.

The book is illustrated with comics, although it is not a graphic novel. But Junior makes comics to understand his life and the world around him, and the book uses this form in imaginative ways (thanks to illustrator Ellen Forney, who is featured in a Q&A at the end of the book that is quite interesting to read).

I don’t usually dog-ear books but I did to this line by Junior:

“I think the world is a series of broken dams and floods, and my cartoons are tiny little lifeboats.”

Isn’t that a great line? I love that line.

Then, later, as Junior is talking with his new white friend, Gordy, they realize that the comics are actually a serious interpretation of the world. Junior tells Gordy:

“I take them seriously. I use them to understand the world. I use them to make fun of the world. To make fun of people. And sometimes I draw people because they’re my friends and family. And I want to honor them.”

One of the issues he struggles with is poverty. See this sample illustration at a moment when his “white” friends suddenly realize how poor he really is (he can’t pay for food at Denny’s):


Pick up this book if you can. You won’t be disappointed.

Peace (on the pages),

Love Hate That Cat

Hate That Cat By Sharon Creech

Jack is back, and so is Miss Stretchberry, but this time it is a cat at the center of the story, and not a dog. You may remember how much I loved the book, Love That Dog by Sharon Creech. I use Love That Dog in my poetry unit, reading it aloud to my students and using the poems and sense of exploration of poetic styles as a way to reach my young writers.

Well, Creech has done it again, but this time, the book is Hate That Cat, and just like its predecessor, the book is infused with poems from the canon (Edgar Allen Poe, William Carlos Williams, Valerie Word, Lord Tennyson, etc.) as Jack tries to come to grips with two things: how to find love for cats and how to explain his love for his mother, who is deaf. The book is written in the form of a poetic journal between Jack and his teacher, who remains a silent yet supportive and loving presence just off the pages of the book. Everyone should have a teacher like Miss Stretchberry in their life.

The cat element revolves around a black cat that scratched him and hurt him when he went out of his way to save it — thus the refrain: I hate that cat. But then, even as he continues to cherish the memories of his dog, Sky, that formed the center of Love That Dog, he gets a kitten and his heart melts. The black cat that he hates so much later redeems itself with Jack.

The mother element is more delicate and unfolds slowly, as Jack begins to tell what it is like to have a mother who is deaf and signs with her hands for language. He wonders early in the book, before we even know about his mother: how does someone who can’t hear sound experience a poem with sound words within it? He finds a way, and the book ends with a poetry reading, with his mother in the audience, as Jack signs his poems from the front of the room.

As with Love That Dog, I found myself getting very emotional at certain points in Hate That Cat and if you are not moved by Jack and his poems, then … I don’t know. Creech uses a sense of humor to set up the deeper emotional experiences from Jack’s world.

Along the way, Jack learns about poetic techniques such as alliteration, onomatopoeia, assonance, dissonance, and more. And Creech tosses a little literary fire into the mix by having Jack’s uncle, a college professor of English, argue with Jack about what makes a poem a poem (his uncle believes that poems must have grand themes, using intricate rhyming patterns and assures Jack that what he is writing in class are not poems at all, but just scribbles of words).

The book puts me into a bit of a conundrum: do I drop Love That Dog for Hate That Cat? Or do I find a way to use both?

Peace (in the wonder of books),