Funny, sad, angry, uplifting, and impossible to put down, this novel about a geeky teenage boy who leaves his school on the poverty-stricken Spokane Indian Reservation to attend an academically superior-- but all-white and all-rich-- high school is, along with Kathleen Duey's Skin Hunger, one of my two favorite YA novels I've read all year.

Here's Arnold "Junior" Spirit on his first day at the new high school. Roger is another student:

"Hey, Chief," Roger said. "You want to hear a joke?"

"Sure," I said.

"Did you know that Indians are living proof that niggers fuck buffalo?"

I felt like Roger had kicked me in the face. That was the most racist thing I'd ever heard in my life.

Roger and his friends were laughing like crazy. I hated them. And I knew I had to do something big. I couldn't let them get away with that shit. I wasn't just defending myself. I was defending Indians, black people,
and buffalo.

Arnold/Junior draws cartoons, which are an integral part of the book. They're actually drawn by artist Ellen Forney, and they're terrific.

I'm not sure if what I loved most about this novel was Arnold's very convincingly teenage voice and personality, the way that even the most minor characters had depth and complexity and a point of view, or the way that Alexie manages to depict the appalling conditions on the rez, the brutal social conditions that produced it, and Arnold's moments of self-pity without either glossing over any of that or producing an awesomely depressing book. Or the cartoons. Loved the cartoons.

The book this reminded me of the most was Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak, for its uncompromising grittiness, teenage protagonist who kept a sense of humor despite soul-crushing experiences (and found hope in art), and witty first-person narrative.

It also struck home to me on a personal level with its honest account of being stuck between two cultures, being a misfit, and the guilt and intoxicating freedom of walking away from one's childhood home, knowing that you've left others behind in terrible conditions that they are unlikely to be able to either improve or escape.

I'd read some of Alexie's short stories before (which I liked but which didn't really wow me), but none of his novels. Are any of his adult books anything like this? Which would you recommend?

Click here to buy it from Amazon: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

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