The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian – Sherman Alexie

Arnold Spirit is a teenager living on the Spokane Indian reservation in Washington, where everyone calls him Junior.  As a baby, he was hydrocephalic, which caused seizures, poor vision, and a perception from his peers that he was different.  Most of the others on the rez picked on him, except his family, and his closest friend, Rowdy.  Rowdy was a tough guy and would fight anybody over anything, especially anyone who got too rough with Junior.

Beginning high school at the rez became a turning point for Junior.  He got upset that the textbooks were so old his mom’s name was in them.  He was suspended for throwing the book, which hit the teacher, Mr. P.  During his suspension, Mr. P visited Junior and convinced him to get his education off the reservation.

Most of the Indians picked on Junior because he was different, now they picked on him because he was a traitor for leaving the rez.

Reardon was Junior’s new school, it was twenty miles from the rez.  Sometimes his dad was sober enough to drop him off and pick him up, but every once in a while, Junior had to walk. He was the only Indian at the white school, and it was a rough start for him.   He was half white at the rez, and half indian at the school.  It took some time but Junior found his place, realizing he was as smart and athletic as anybody at Reardon.  While finding himself there, he also lost some close friends and family back home.  Rowdy believed he was a traitor and went for blood during the high school basketball game. Alcohol was also a major contributor to the losses at the rez.

Reading this book, I was reminded of the character’s in NS Momaday’s House Made of Dawn, which focuses on an American Indian’s struggle with modernization- living in the white world. It is a struggle between balancing everything your family knows and has held on to for centuries, or going out on your own to find a better life.  A struggle of honoring your ancestors to keep the culture alive or turning your back on them to leave the rez. It is a tough battle, and many on the rez don’t fight it.  They stay and become prisoners there.

Part 2 – House Made of Dawn – Momaday

Momaday’s book explored the dichotomy of life of a young American Indian during the mid-19th century.  It was a little confusing to follow as it jumped around in time and place, and even thoughts.  As a whole, it delved into the multiple perspectives of persons involved with Indian culture in the time.

Where I left off before- Abel was struggling living in the Anglo world in LA in the early 1950’s.  He became overwhelmed and returned to his home reservation with his grandfather, Francisco.  The dichotomy mentioned before was unique as the two worlds were colliding on Abel. As he grew up on the Reservation, he learned a lot from his grandfather and enjoyed learning the culture of his people.  In an action he believed was necessary, he broke the Western laws and was imprisoned.  After serving his term, the government and social agencies provided him a job and place to live in Los Angeles.  In the Anglo world, Abel struggled with adjusting to the idea of this new culture.  During his time there, the only changes he made were to get a job, which he couldn’t keep, and he began drinking heavily.  He stood up to others who denounced the old ways, and showed that he favored the life he knew, back on the reservation.  Upon his return to the reservation, there was little in terms of a financial future in Western terms, but it was rich with tradition, people, and places he loved.

Momaday used poetry, multiple perspectives, and even a diary of an 18th century missionary to make this fictional piece come to life.  He did a great job of putting a voice to different characters.  Most of the book was written through an omniscient perspective, but there was a chapter that stood out as Abel’s roommate in LA, Benally, gave a youthful voice and dialect to share his perspective of Abel’s time in Los Angeles.

Ever since the Europeans began to influence America, the native people continually struggled physically and mentally with adjusting to the new ways brought before them. Some continue to struggle as their elders encourage them to embrace native language, arts, and tradition, as the other society pushes to engage in formal education and employment. It’s a hard battle to fight, who’s to win when there is much to lose either way?

Rating *********9/10

House Made of Dawn – Momaday

A few weeks ago, I was watching a Ken Burns documentary on the American West and there was a man who spoke so eloquently it took my attention immediately.  The text on the screen said this man was N. Scott Momaday, a Native American Writer.  Immediately I started a search for books and found that he was the 1969 Pulitzer Prize winner for his novel House Made of Dawn. Add to cart, purchase, ship, read.

I’m about halfway through with HMoD, reading a little here and there over the Thanksgiving holiday.  This novel is set in the late 1940s/early 1950s.  The theme centers around Abel’s journey from native culture of his family to the assimilation to the white man’s way.  After the American Indian’s legal struggles throughout the 19th century, it seems as if Abel’s generation was really feeling a divide and nearing a decision to carry their ancestors ways or melt into a foreign way of life as many did before him.  Abel was in a difficult struggle to fit in with either culture.

A few observations of the book so far:  Descriptive.  Momaday uses an extensive vocabulary to describe canyons, villages, people, rain storms, death, love, struggles.  I really enjoy how he paints the picture:

“The canyon is a ladder to the plain. The valley is pale in the end of July, when the corn and melons come of age and slowly the fields are ready for the yield, and a faint, false air of autumn- an illusion still in the land- rises somewhere away in the high north country, a vague suspicion of red and yellow on the furthest summits. And the town lies out like a scattering of bones in the heart of the land, low in the valley, where the earth is a kiln and the soil is carried here and there in the wind and all harvests are a poor survival of the seed.”

While the descriptions are enjoyable, the story line is a little confusing.  I hope it will straighten out a little and tie together by the end.  There are dreams, diaries, and different characters that have small connections to each other.  It’s hard to put the connections together at this time, except that each major character has a different perspective of the time.  There is Abel, a young man who doesn’t fit in with either culture; Abel’s grandfather, Francisco, who is Abel’s last link to the old ways;  and Father Olguin, a priest sent to help ‘civilize’ and guide the natives to the European way of life.

At the point I am at in the book now, it is 1952 and Abel lives in LA.  He is struggling with alcoholism and it is painful to read about his physical  struggle.  A religious group of American Indians is mentioned, they had a peyote ceremony, the leader (Priest of the Sun) works to make connections between story telling of his ancestors and the written word of the Bible.

More to come…