As long as books have existed there have been people trying to stop other people from reading them. In 213 B.C., the Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang is said to have buried 460 scholars alive before burning all the books in his kingdom so he could control how history would remember his reign. Censorship has a long dark history and books have forever been objects of controversy, criticized for spreading ideas which go against the norm or status quo. They are removed from libraries, schools and bookshops, damaged, burned, and banned and while writers are attacked, threatened, and imprisoned. These actions are nothing new, yet the importance of preserving our freedom to read is more important now than ever.
Banned Books Week 2021 begins Sept. 26 and runs Oct. 2. The theme of this year’s event is powerful and timely: “Books Unite Us. Censorship Divides Us.” The initiative was launched in the U.S. in 1982, in response to a surge in the number of challenges to books in schools. Since then, it has sought to highlight the value of free and open access to information. Today’s practices of censorship remain prevalent yet differ in style. Political leaders use legal methods to prevent writing that paints themselves and their parties in an unpleasant light –techniques not so different to the lawsuits used to silence journalists. And, textbooks are often rewritten to show recent historical events in a very different light. As well as these more blatant signs of government censorship, literature is still challenged today. Some of the most recognized works of the 20th century have famously been challenged including “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and “The Grapes of Wrath.”
One of the most challenged books over the past 15 years happens to be one of my favorites: “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian” by Sherman Alexie. It draws on those experiences of a single year in the life of a 14-year-old Native American Indian. Written in 2007, and targeting young adult readers, Alexie was inspired by his own adolescence growing up on a reservation – “the rez” – and he won a National Book award with this inspiring story. He manages a balance between shock and delicacy in handling issues such as alcohol, gambling and drugs that are great for any age. Race and poverty are also addressed and they are too important to sweep under the rug at a time when immigration issues loom large and there is greater discrepancy than ever between rich and poor. Though the issues may be considered offensive to some, it is important that people – specially students – learn about difficult topics like these so they can be informed critical thinkers and respect other peoples’ points of view.
In the novel, the protagonist is Arnold Spirit Jr. (known as Junior), an endearing feisty underdog. Born with water on the brain, he lisps, stutters, has poor eyesight and seizures. Plus, he has 10 extra teeth in his mouth, which add to his “uniqueness.” He 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.” Junior’s dad is an alcoholic who, given the chance, would have been a jazz musician. His mom is a recovering alcoholic who, given the chance, would have gone to college. But there is no way for reservation Indians to realize their dreams, Alexie angerly writes from Junior’s first-person point of view.
As Junior grows, he is continually bullied. “Everybody on the rez calls me a retard about twice a day,” he says. The rez is outside Spokane, Washington, and in it is a small village called Wellpinit, near Readon, a white border town 22 miles away. A teacher tells Junior he’s smart but needs to get off the rez if he wants to amount to anything: “You have to take your hope and go somewhere where other people have hope.” Junior boldly transfers from the dilapidated school to Readon High, where the only other Indian is the school mascot. It’s far away and so unwelcoming to Native Americans that a bus isn’t available. Junior sometimes walks or hitchhikes the 20 miles when his dad can’t afford the gas because he’s spent the money on booze.
Caught between two worlds – a rez that considers him a traitor for trying to better his life and an affluent community that can’t see beyond the color of his skin – Junior must earn their respect. At Readon High he finds a geeky friend who teaches him the art of reading, and he gets to be the “almost” boyfriend of the beautiful, and popular, Penelope, who treats her bulimia like an Olympic medal. The jocks even learn to respect him, especially when he shows that he’s a whiz on the basketball court. The only problem is that the team’s schedule naturally includes matches against his village school, whose star player, Rowdy, who used to be his best friend. Rowdy is angry and resents his pal’s transfer, and so Junior must be strong enough to face his people and defeat them. In his own words, this is “really weird.”
On the rez, Junior earns esteem through loyalty to his culture, even if that culture seems to revolve around death and his life is steeped in alcoholic violence. He’s already been to more than 40 funerals in his life – three of them while he’s attending Reardan High. His adored 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 intoxicated to realize what’s happening and save herself. These kinds of tragedies are far removed from the lives of his peers at school, but they affect Junior in a way that isn’t defined in black and white, or as Indian versus non-Indian. As Junior learns, the world isn’t separated solely by color, but also by actions.
Junior finds comfort in drawing cartoons, and he’s witty. He draws funny pictures of everybody’s shortcomings (there are pencil drawings in the book) and, like Holden Caulfield, he’s an honest and straight-forward teen with an opinion about phoniness and meanness in the world.
Some writers have the gift of breathing real life into their fictional characters. Charles Dickens and J. D. Salinger did. So does Sherman Alexie in this book. This is a novel for just about anyone, of any age, because it addresses the hardships we all face in life, not only promoting the importance of perseverance, but also making people think about how they would handle difficult situations. Junior makes for an excellent role model for students because of his incessant determination to overcome the obstacles in his life.
“The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” is a full-time pleasure, and helps to remind us of the importance of free artistic expression and of literature’s power to challenge even the most powerful, oppressive forces.
(Semi-spoiler alert: This February’s Big Read book is often on Banned Books’ lists, too.)