This week I read a truly delicious book. One of those books that come along so rarely that it leaves you reluctant to start reading something new because you know you’ll only be disappointed. Have you ever had that feeling? Have you ever read a book where the characters become so real to you that they feel like living, breathing parts of your family? And I’m not talking about the crazy uncle that no one will sit next to at the reunion. Over the years there have been many books that have moved into the Valhalla of my soul. A place reserved for the ‘gods’. The Great Gatsby of course. Cannery Row by John Steinbeck. Lonesome Doveby Larry McMutry. Silent Joe by T. Jefferson Parker. Coyote Blue by Christopher Moore. The Last Days of Summerby Steve Kluger. The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread by Don Robertson. All of these are books that I read and savored and read again and again, wishing that if there is a force in the universe that shapes great writers, perhaps I would find it on the pages of one of these books and it would somehow rub off on me.
I have found another book that I will add to that shelf. This week I picked up a copy of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. I’m trying to come up with something to say that doesn’t sound cliched but that is the power of this book. It rendered me speechless. To say that ‘it was so good, I couldn’t put it down’ is lame. But I couldn’t put it down. “It kept me reading long into the night” only diminishes the power of what is inside these pages but I kept reading long into the night.
Arnold Spirit lives on the Spokane Indian reservation in Washington State. When Arnold was born he suffered from Hydrocephalus or what we commonly call ‘water on the brain’. As a result he is prone to seizures and most of the people on the rez consider him something of a spaz. But like Holden Caulfield, or Tom Sawyer, or Scout, Arnold is way smart. And with that intelligence comes a wisdom far beyond his years.
The conflict arises when Arnold is given a chance to attend a nearby all-white school. To Arnold it is a way out of the life of despair, poverty and alcoholism that surrounds him. To the residents of the rez, if he goes, he’s a traitor. He’s turned his back on them and he will be shunned for it. But Arnold knows that it’s his only chance. So he goes.
And he finds at first that his life doesn’t change all that much. To his new classmates Arnold is still a freak. A poverty stricken Indian trying to fit in where he doesn’t belong, who by the way has an extremely large head. He’s teased and ridiculed and excluded every bit as much as he was on the reservation. But there is perhaps a cosmic reason why his name is Arnold Spirit.
I won’t go any further and give away anything else. But you must read this book. It made me laugh out loud. It made me weep. It made me think. It’s such a triumph because it’s so true. We’ve all been where Arnold is. We may not have grown up poor, but at some point in our life, we’ve been teased or excluded or made to feel dumb or inadequate or told that we can never triumph over our pasts. Yet we do. Boys, girls, young adults, old adults and everyone in between will love this book. It will be around a long time after all of us are gone.
Finishing The Absolutely True Story of a Part Time Indian left me with a melancholy feeling. It’s a feeling that I and I’m sure many other writers have had many times before, when I’ve read words so profound and wonderful that I can only say to myself “That’s it. No one can do it better than that. You might as well give up.”
But I don’t. Just like Arnold Spirit.