Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Once Again, It's the Little Things

When I teach Introduction to Rhetoric and Social Influence, one of the exercises I always do with the class is about censorship of books. I put together a collection of books that have been challenged, find a part that relates to the reason for the challenge, and then have students read that section and say whether or not they would support the challenge. Every time I gather books for the exercise, I find a new book I want to read. This year, it was The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.

What interested me about the book was the conflict the main character, Junior (Arnold) Spirit, faced. Junior is a Spokane Indian living on a reservation, but one of his teachers at the reservation school tells Junior he should go to the public school in a town off the reservation. Junior decides to take the risk, even though it means his best friend now hates him for "deserting" the tribe. Junior faces discrimination at the town school, but eventually he makes friends with several of the white students. Throughout the story, though, Junior struggles with being a "border dweller" (another term from Intro to Rhetoric class!) who lives between two cultures. I liked that entire storyline. While I was saddened by the portrayal of the hopelessness and alcoholism of the Indian culture, I liked the way Alexie portrayed the sense of community of the Indians.

But...once again, there were some little things that seemed sloppy to me and took me out of the story several times. One thing happened right in the first chapter. Junior is introducing himself, and he's got all kinds of physical problems, like being born with hydrocephalus and having seizures and being very awkward with big hands and feet. Then he goes on to tell about playing basketball and in fact, becoming a starter on the town school's varsity team and even hitting the shot that leads to his school team destroying the reservation team. That seems unrealistic to me. I've had a couple of students in the past with those kinds of physical problems, and those problems don't just go away in time for a kid to become a star basketball player. Strike one.

Another thing I thought was unrealistic was Junior saying how many times he ended up walking the 22 miles from the school to the reservation because his dad forgot to come pick him up (or was too drunk to do it). I'm not arguing with the fact that a kid could have to find his own way home from school; what seems unrealistic to me is the distance. How long would it take to walk 22 miles? When my husband and I used to do backpacking, the best we accomplished was something like 11 miles in an 8-hour day. Of course, that was carrying a pack, but wouldn't a school kid have a backpack full of books? You should see what my daughter hauls back and forth every day. I don't buy it. Strike two.

The thing that bothered me most, though, came when Junior's grandmother died. Of course, she died in some bizarre way. At her memorial service, a rich guy steps up to return a ceremonial dance dress that he said belongs to Grandmother Spirit. Then Junior's mother steps up to say, "I'm her daughter....." Wait...I thought she was Grandmother Spirit, related to Arnold Spirit. If Indian surnames follow the same rules as Anglo names, that means it would be his father who was related to Grandmother Spirit, not his mother. Maybe the rules are different for Indian marriages, but there's nothing in the book to say that. It reads like a mistake to me. Strike three.

Those three strikes, combined with what I thought was an overdone "voice" for Junior's character, soured me a little on the book. I don't know that this is what was in Sherman Alexie's mind, but no author should take for granted that readers will, without question, overlook sloppy detail work if the issues in the story are "important" enough. It especially bothers me when that happens in a young adult book. YA readers are still forming their perceptions of the world - they may not have the critical thinking skills to ferret out the mistakes and correct them. In my opinion, we do those readers a disservice when we are less than accurate - even with minor details.

1 comment:

Ann Turnbull said...

You're right, 22 miles sounds unrealistic to me - unless he was very fit, and running? In my youth I once walked 26 miles in a long day on tarmac roads (unwisely wearing slip-on plastic sandals) and when we stopped for a rest around 5pm I had great difficulty getting up again! Walking on uneven ground is less tiring, but you'd probably cover a shorter distance - as you discovered.

Btw, I too am just about to start reading The Witch of Blackbird Pond so will be interested to see what you have to say about it.