Sometimes the best way to examine a depressing subject is to cloak in savage folds of humour. Sherman Alexie does precisely this with The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Arnold Spirit Jr. is a kid who’s been dealt some unfortunate cards from the deck of life. Born hydrocephalic, with a lisp and stutter to boot, this is a bully’s wet dream come true. He lives on the Spokane reservation, a reservation much like many others all over the States, doomed to exist in perpetual poverty and mired in apathy. Arnold is a spunky kid though, who refuses to give up, despite the brutal obstacles in his path, including physical ones such as being beaten up every week by different sets of bullies. But it is his teacher who tells him that he mustn’t let the candle sputter, and convinces him to attend Reardan, an all-white school some twenty-odd miles from the reservation.
Indoctrinated by the racist propaganda that pervades our pernicious airwaves, Spirit arrives at the school fully expecting to be scorned, beaten and humiliated. After all, why would life be any better here? But surprisingly, after a few racial slurs, he’s left alone. Punching the school’s alpha male in the face hard enough to draw blood might have something to do with that. Life is a prison for Spirit, and you have to draw blood on your first day in the pen to persuade the other inmates to leave you alone. Oderint dum metuant. But luckily, this is not the case, as Arnold soon finds out. He dates a bulimic girl, who has just enough pain inside her to enable them to bond together. He also discovers the joys of exceeding expectations, as opposed to simply wallowing the miasma of despair he’s become accustomed to at home.
This is a powerful and poignant book, with savage criticisms of society and extant mores clothed in childish humour. Stereotypes are bandied about and ruthlessly discarded, while Arnold draws us ever closer to the truth. Spirit succeeds and escapes the life of just another statistic, finding that most precious of human gifts: hope.