Race and poverty aren't subjects Americans like to talk about. They're too loaded, too uncomfortable. But they are also too important to brush under the rug at a time when immigration issues loom large and there is greater disparity than ever between rich and poor.
Unless we're willing to talk about these touchy subjects -- to walk into the fire, so to speak -- it's difficult to understand opposing viewpoints and harder still to combat racism or impoverishment.
One of the best times to consider uncomfortable topics is in youth, when minds are still supple, opinions not yet set. And one of the best places is within the quiet confines of a book, where ideas can be introduced and pondered without pressure.
Even so, it takes a master's hand to transform sociological issues into a page turner that resonates with adolescent readers. Few writers are more masterful than Sherman Alexie, the prolific Native American author who, a decade ago, burst on to the literary landscape with a fierce prose informed by his experiences growing up poor on an Indian reservation near Spokane, Wash.
"The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian," Alexie's first novel for young-adult readers, draws on those experiences through a time-focused lens -- a single year in the life of 14-year-old Arnold Spirit.
Arnold is the second child of parents who "came from poor people who came from poor people who came from poor people, all the way back to the very first poor people. Adam and Eve covered their privates with fig leaves; the first Indians covered their privates with their tiny hands."
Arnold's dad is an alcoholic who, given the chance, would have been a musician. His mom is a recovering alcoholic who, given the chance, would have gone to college. But there is no chance for reservation Indians to realize their dreams, Alexie writes from Arnold's first-person point of view.
Arnold wants to be an artist. He's constantly drawing comics about his life on crumpled scraps of paper, which the reader sees every few pages. These black-and-white drawings are by Seattle-based cartoonist Ellen Forney, who, through a mix of rough sketches and more artfully done images, captures the frustrated Arnold's isolation, anger and humor as well as the situations that are driving him to put pen to paper.
One of those situations involves a geography textbook so old that his mother's name is inscribed inside the front cover. When Arnold angrily throws the book in protest, it hits his teacher, which results in a broken nose for the teacher and a school suspension for Arnold.
That turns out to be a good thing. Mr. P, as the teacher is known, visits Arnold to tell him that he's the smartest kid in class but that he needs to leave the reservation's Wellpinit school if he's going to amount to anything. That means attending Reardan High in a farming town so far away and unwelcoming to Native Americans that a bus isn't available; Arnold sometimes walks or hitchhikes when his dad can't afford the gas because he's spent the money on drink.
Distance-wise, Reardan is just 22 miles from the "rez," but culturally and spiritually, it feels like a million. At Reardan -- a school with a politically incorrect Indian for a mascot -- Arnold is the only nonwhite.
The high-school misfit is a familiar young-adult-story template, but Alexie makes it fresh because this particular misfit is one who doesn't often appear in print. As a poor Native American, Arnold's issues are different. He's called "Chief" and "Squaw Boy" (by the kids at school) and Apple (by fellow Indians on the rez, who say he's red on the outside and white on the inside).
Caught between two worlds -- a rez that considers him a traitor for trying to better his life and a well-to-do community that can't see beyond the color of his skin -- Arnold must earn their respect. At school, he starts by punching the star athlete. That morphs into a mutual respect, then an invite to join the basketball team, a friendship with the school genius and dates with Reardan's most popular girl.
On the rez, Arnold earns respect through homage to his culture, even if that culture seems to revolve around alcohol and death. His life is drenched in alcohol-induced violence. He's already been to more than 40 funerals in his life -- three of them while he's attending Reardan High. His grandmother is run over and killed by a drunk driver. His dad's best friend is shot in the face and killed over the last sip from a wine bottle. His sister dies in a trailer fire, too drunk to realize what is going on and save herself.
These sorts of tragedies are far removed from the lives of his peers at school, but they affect Arnold in a way that isn't defined in black and white, or as Indian versus non-Indian. As Arnold learns, the world isn't divided by color but by actions. You either step up, or you don't.