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The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

THE
ABSOLUTELY
TRUE
DIARY of a PART-TIME INDIAN : a novel

Author: Sherman Alexie

Little, Brown and Co. 2007
Genre: Young Adult Fiction
Hardcover: 229 pages

The Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association reports that The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian appears on the Top 10 List of Challenged or Banned Books in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014.
Reasons: anti-family, cultural insensitivity, religious viewpoint, drugs/alcohol/smoking, gambling, offensive language, sex education, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group, violence, depictions of bullying.

Author Information

Sherman Alexie

The title tells it like it is. Sherman Alexie was born a Spokane Indian. He grew up where the book is set, on a reservation – the “rez” – in Wellpinit, Washington State. He was, like his central character, hydrocephalic at birth, “with too much grease inside my skull”. And in his teens he attended Reardan High School, off the reservation, near the rich farm town, where all the other students were white. Many authors hum and ha when asked if their fiction is in any way autobiographical. This one makes no bones about it and yet skillfully manages to transform his actual experience into a novel. True fiction. Absolutely.

Source: https://theguardian.com/books/2008/oct/04/teenage.sherman.alexie

Excerpt

 Arnold Spirit, Jr says:

I was born with water on the brain. . . My family thinks it as funny when the doctors. . . sucked out all that extra water with some tiny vacuum. . .

My brain damage left me nearsighted in one eye and farsighted in the other so my ugly glasses were all lopsided. . . I ended up with [42] teeth. . . Ten more than usual.

My head was so big. . . the kids called me Globe.

And oh, I was skinny. . .[but] my hands and feet were huge.

I also stutter and have a lisp. . . Every body on the rez calls me a retard. . . Do you know what happens to retards on the Rez? We get beat up. . .

Every kid wants to go outside. But it’s safer to stay at home. So I mostly hang out alone in my bedroom and draw cartoons. . . [I] draw because I want to talk to the world. And I want the world to pay attention to me. . .

[I] draw because I feel like it might be my only real chance to escape the reservation.

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

Book Review and Comments

Life on the impoverished Spokane Indian Reservation is rough on everyone but especially difficult for 14 year old Arnold Spirit, Jr aka Junior. His physical oddities and stuttering make him the perfect target for the mean spirited bullies on the “rez”.

Trapped by poverty and the effects of rampant alcoholism, he finds safety turning inward and dreaming of a better life off the reservation. He hides out in his room with his favorite books and resorts to writing about his life events – drawing relevant cartoons that express his deepest feelings and thoughts. One of my favorite cartoons depicts his parents lives if they were not handcuffed by culture, poverty and alcohol.

Determined not to be identified by his culture and circumstance, he never gives up hope to be seen as an individual on his own merits. We learn of his joys and sorrows through his diary.

Junior’s diary entries are written after the fact. They are openly honest and matter-of-fact; not offered as excuses or for shock value. They are sometimes startlingly emotional, often lonely, and at all times, written with unabashed candor and filled with optimism and hope.

As a child of two alcoholics, Arnold has seen first hand what alcohol can do to a family – hunger is a constant as Dad leaves to get bread and comes back drunk. His beloved Grandmother, who never touched a drop of alcohol, was run over by a drunken friend of Arnold’s father. His father’s friend was later killed in a drunken fight. His sister, Mary, and her husband were inebriated when they died in an accidental house fire.

FACT:   A popular blog on Native American life says that alcoholism is a disease that takes root like a parasitic plant that can affect every aspect of life, even including the potential death of its host. It seems appropriate that this candid view of the subject by Junior presents readers with an opportunity to view the ramifications of alcohol abuse and alcoholism.

Junior’s life takes a turn when he begins his first day in high school and he is issued an ancient textbook that he discovers had been used by his mother in the past. Faced full-on with the dead-end future he could expect from the inferior education on the rez, he reacts by pitching the text book injuring his teacher, Mr. P.

A week into his school suspension, Mr. P comes to visit him at home.  Junior, expecting Mr. P’s wrath, is surprised, when Mr. P says –

When I first started teaching here. . . we beat rowdy [students]. That’s how we were taught to teach you. We were supposed to kill the Indian [in you] to save the child. . . We were trying to kill the Indian culture. . . I want to say you deserve better. . . If you stay on the rez, we will kill [the spirit] in you. . . You have to take your hope and go somewhere where other people have hope.

Arnold is disheartened by his father’s dependence on alcohol but he never doubts that he is loved by both of his parents. He tells them how important it is to him to leave the rez and transfer to the  high school twenty-two miles away for a better education. His father supports his decision although he knows that Junior will face deeply entrenched racism. His best friend on the rez, Rowdy, gives him a black-eye and a swollen nose as a going-away gift.  He might have been the victim of bullying on the rez but his leaving the culture in his rear-view mirror now labels him a traitor. Indian families follow tradition and stay together.

[His first day at the new school begins with] the white kids. . .arriving for school. They surround me. Those kids aren’t white. They were translucent. . .They stared at me like I was Bigfoot. . .[Their school mascot] was an Indian, thereby making me the only other Indian in town.

Junior/Arnold has a very hard time on all sides of his new life battling bullying and insults on both fronts. But as time goes by that first year, the “white” Arnold begins to emerge from his repressed rez cocoon at the new school excelling in academics and sports. He also finds racism, bullying, violence, drugs, girls, and hormonal explosion with exposure to raw sex.

FACT: According to the The Children’s Assessment Center in Grand Rapids, Michigan it is estimated that 40-85% of children will engage in at least some sexual behaviors before turning thirteen years of age (Friedrich, et al, 1991). It is believed by experts that 80% of children have masturbated by the age of three (Parenting, 1997). Children need to learn about sexuality. If children do not receive information about sexuality from their parents, they will receive it from their peers, TV, magazines, movies and other media, which may provide them with misinformation and cause confusion. 

I understand that some parents will prefer that their children acquire sexual knowledge at a time and place of their choosing. However, I am an old woman and I can affirm that when you learn about sex is usually far earlier than your parents think you are ready.

Junior’s life on the rez remains downcast until tragedy strikes his family and the entirety of the Spokane reservation pulls together in their grief and he is accepted back into the fold – with reservations- pun unintended.

By the end of his Freshman year, Junior/Arnold has a girlfriend in town and has his life on the reservation. He has learned many lessons during the year.  The view of the “white’ town, seen as a meca for educational advancement, turns out to be less than perfect- normal in its own way. The problems that plague the reservation may differ based on culture, but all communities have their good points and their bad. He has learned first hand how  poverty can make you feel inferior to those with money for new clothes and fast food. But he also learns that love and friendship can be color-blind.

I think that Arnold/Junior sums it all quite nicely. Yup. A cussword, Often my favorite.

format_quoteI used to think the world was broken down by tribes, I said. By black and white. By Indian and white.But I know that isn’t true. The world is only broken into two tribes: The people who are assholes and the people who are not.

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The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry / The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessey

Harold and queenie Collage

St. Bernadine’s Hospice
Berwick-upon Tweed
Monday, 11 April

Dear Harold,

This may come to you as some surprise. I know it is a long time since we last met, but recently I have been thinking about the past. Last year I had an operation on a tumor, but the cancer has spread and there is nothing left to be done. I am at peace, and comfortable, but I would like to thank you for the friendship you showed me all those years ago. Please send my regards to your wife. I still think of David with fondness.

With my best wishes,
Queenie Hennessy

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, published in 2012 in the US, quickly reached international success. Harold Fry, a dapper Brit from a tiny town of Kingsbridge, finds himself unable to post a letter to a dying friend. Each time he reached a post box, he walked on to another, until he found himself on an unintended walk across England. As he walked on, Harold believed that as long as he walked, Queenie would stay alive waiting for him.

Twenty years earlier, Harold and Maureen Fry were rocked by the suicide of their only child, David. The Fry marriage, already on fragile ground as David slipped further from them emotionally, became a shadow relationship after his death. Maureen became caustic and unlovable.  Harold, unable to express his grief, put his life on remote control, living each day as a robot.

As Harold walked on in his yachting shoes, inadequate footwear for a 600+ mile trek,  he meets many side characters that provide levity, sorrow, inspiration and friendship. Memories of better times become loosened from a locked place his mind and by the time he reaches St. Bernadine’s Hospice in Berwick-upon Tweed he has learned much about himself and has hope for his future. 

After finishing Henry Fry’s pilgrimage,  I wanted more! What was Queenie Hennessy’s backstory? More details please! I wanted to hear things from Queenie’s point of view.

So, I was thrilled when the author deftly crafted Queenie’s story in 2014. This second book, The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, is written from Queenie’s perspective as Harold walks across England. It is the perfect companion book.

When my book club chose The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy for our March (2017) selection, I thought I would skim The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry to refresh my memory. In the end I found myself re-reading both books in quick succession.

Both books begin with Queenie’s letter to Harold; Love Song includes the entire text of the letter while Pilgrimage hits the high points. It has been 20 years since Queenie suddenly left her job at the brewery. Her recent letter catches Harold off-guard as she writes that she has terminal cancer and wants to tell him, ” Thank you for the friendship you showed me all those years ago.”

As Queenie learns that Harold is walking across England to see her, she is encouraged to write a letter about her life. We learn her side of their relationship through these letters.

Queenie’s unrequited love for Harold, a secret social relationship with Harold’s son, David, and her willingness to sacrifice herself for Harold drove her to leave Kingsbridge in sorrow and grief. With no destination in mind, she simply heads away until she reaches the end of land and faces the ocean. As she walks into the water to drown herself, she stops herself when she discovers the mysterious life beneath the water. She finds an abandoned house on the shore and begins creating a massive sea garden with representations of persons and events from her past. Along the way she finds she is able to make friendships and to live a simple quiet life.

Like the first book, Queenie’s story is filled with hospice patients that show all of us that life isn’t over until the last breath.

As much as I loved Harold’s book, I think seeing their story through Queenie’s eyes was a deeper and richer experience. Describing Queenie’s hospice life and her interactions with the staff and fellow residents is heartwarming and heart wrenching at the same time.

If I go into more detail about either book, I will spoil it for the reader! The stories touched my heart strings. Please do the author the honor of reading both of these books. I highly recommend them.

Sources:
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (personal copy)

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy (Advance e-book provided by the publisher and Netgalley in exchange of my honest review.)

 

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Looking For Alaska

banned-books-image

# 1 Challenged Book In 2015

looking-for-alaska
Looking For Alaska

Author | John Green
Dutton Bks | 2005
Hardcover: 256 pages
ISBN: 978-0-06-245660-1

click-on-me-to-find-out-more-q1ztrj-clipart
Genre: Fiction/Interpersonal Relations
Audience: High School

PRESS RELEASE – 2005

Before.
Miles “Pudge” Halter is done with his safe life at home. His whole life has been one big non-event, and his obsession with famous last words has only made him crave “the Great Perhaps” even more (Francois Rabelais, poet). He heads off to the sometimes crazy and anything-but-boring world of Culver Creek Boarding School, and his life becomes the opposite of safe. Because down the hall is Alaska Young. The gorgeous, clever, funny, sexy, self-destructive, screwed up, and utterly fascinating Alaska Young. She is an event unto herself. She pulls Pudge into her world, launches him into the Great Perhaps, and steals his heart. Then. . . .
After. Nothing is ever the same.

Challenge History
Looking for Alaska, first published in 2005, was John Green’s debut young adult novel. The American Library Association awarded the book the  Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature in 2006. Visit the link Awards and Challenges for more information about this book and book challenges in general.

The first challenge to the book occurred in 2008 when the book was used as course material in an 11th-grade English class in a high school near Buffalo, N.Y. Some parents challenged its usage in class because of its liberal portrayal of students drinking, smoking, using explicit language and having sex. The school board ultimately voted to keep the book in the school curriculum

Following the phenomenal success of John Green’s A Fault In Our Stars in 2012, Looking for Alaska received a second look by many and soon appeared on the NYT children’s paperback bestseller list at #10.

The American Library Association received  270+ different titles challenged in 2015 but the most challenged book was Looking for Alaska. The ALA has summarized the challenges as offensive language, sexually explicit, and unsuited for age group. Other challenges to the book focused on religious objections.

John Green’s Youtube defense of challenges

My Review

First off I was disappointed (tongue-in-cheek) to learn that the story wasn’t about the cold northern state, Alaska; I had hoped. Alaska is a “gorgeous, clever, funny, sexy, self-destructive, screwed up, and utterly fascinating classmate” (according to the publisher) not an Alaskan musher.

Having gotten over my disappointment, I looked at the bones of the book. Unlike most novels, the book is uniquely arranged in one continuous story-line. No separate chapters.  Breaks in the timeline are spliced into the story by bold headlines – a countdown to some unknown event beginning with one hundred thirty-six days before. This layout did keep me reading page after page always looking for clues, ever aware that something significant is going to happen. A very useful tactic if encouraging a reluctant reader.

My overall impression was positive. I thought the book was age-appropriate for senior high school students. Parents of younger children should probably read the book in advance and make their own decision if their child is mature enough or prepared for some of the themes. The sex scenes and underage drinking reflect the mind of the intended audience as they transition from youth toward adulthood; even if as a parent, you would like to keep your child innocent and close to home. It is my opinion the book could provide a medium through which a parent and child can discuss sensitive topics at a time when it is hard to talk about anything with your child without sulking or surly rebellion.

I particularly liked that Miles’ father, an alumnus of Culver Creek, having been a mischief make himself, advises Miles, “Don’t do anything stupid…No drugs, No drinking, No cigarettes.” While Miles had no initial interest in these activities he was so anxious to belong that he was willing to suspend his better judgement at times.

The heaviest topic, suicide, threads through the story, often disguised as bluster and bravado. Again, with teenage suicides the third-leading cause of death for young people ages 15 to 24, the book provides an avenue for discussion about the symptoms and signals of teenage depression.

I was struck by the deliberate absence of parental contact and limited supervision by school staff during the school year; parents and teachers for the most part seemed to speak in the Peanuts cartoon “wah wah wah” voice as background noise. The “Eagle”, Mr. Starnes, dean of students, appears as a nocturnal guard against late night mischief with little interest in the life of students exhibiting social problems.

By and large, one of the best themes of the book was the world religions class. Miles was not raised in a deeply religious setting but he is intrigued by the metaphysical nature of the class. It speaks to why he reads biographies to learn people’s last words and to his reason for attending this school- searching for the Great Perhaps. The topic of death and the meaning of life is central to the story. As Miles “Pudge” Halter absorbs his thoughts about the meaning of life, the reader follows Alaska’s personal torments toward tragedy.

Mr. Hyde posts Simón Bolívar’s last words, often quoted by Alaska, on the chalkboard as a source for class discussion and reflection.

“Damn it. How will I ever get out of this labyrinth?”

The author places each character in a myriad of labyrinths. Each labyrinth, whether Miles’ efforts at developing friendships, Chips disapproval of the wealthy day students, or Alaska’s deep history of family tragedy and sorrow, lends itself to self-reflection and/or shared dialogue.

When the unexpected event happens and “the before” ends and “the after” begins, life is altered for each character. As in life itself, the characters learn how tenuous the future really is and their self-discovery in response to the “event” casts a bright light on friendship, loyalty, trust, love, religion and reality.

Despite the dark overtones, the book has many positive messages.

The world religion class receives their final exam question two months in advance and the characters’ reflections and discussions on the topic are thought provoking.

What is the most important question human beings must answer?
Choose your answer wisely, and then examine how “Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity attempt to answer it.

Pudge’s final exam begins…

Before I got here, I thought for a long time that the way out of the labyrinth was to pretend it doesn’t exist, to build a small, self-sufficient world in the back corner of the endless maze and to pretend that I was not lost, but home. But that only led to a lonely life accompanied by the last words of the already-dead, so I came here looking for the Great Perhaps, for real friends and a more-than-minor life.

And ends with…

Thomas Edison’s last words were: ‘It’s very beautiful over there.’ I don’t know where there is, but I believe it’s somewhere, and I hope it’s beautiful.”

I spent an inordinate amount of time thinking and writing what has turned out to be a lengthy discussion of this “banned book.” If this book has such a lasting impression on me personally, I hope it is helpful and enlightening to others as well.

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