Absolutely True: Banned in Richland

Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian, that is. The Richland School Board decided last year that the book was too dangerous for their kids to read.

“Literature used in schools ought to teach high values and character,” Richland board member Phyllis Strickler said upon the decision to ban the book from classroom instruction. “I don’t see the appropriateness of gratuitous language and descriptions of sex,” she said.

Absolutely True Diary is a semi-autobiographical book of Alexie’s own past. It won the National Book Award in 2007. It is about an Indian kid that decides to leave his reservation because other kids tease and beat him, his father’s an alcoholic, and he’s seen forty-two funerals by the time he’s 14. He decides he’s got to leave the rez, so he starts by enrolling in a high school in a nearby town full of “rich farmers, rednecks, and racist cops.”

So given this setting, is Junior’s vulgar language gratuitous, or is it integral to the story? Without showing how bad rez life is, how can readers appreciate Junior’s first steps to redemption? Evidently most critics can’t fathom that this book’s theme is “high values and character.” But redemption must have a toehold in something genuine.

Critics seem especially offended by Junior’s joking about the violence and racism he sees and about his typically teen sexual obsessions. But Alexie’s use of humor, exaggeration and irony are just what connect readers to Junior so strongly. Most readers understand obsessions, and know that sometimes people laugh when they feel like crying. And most probably get that Junior wasn’t really just “an exciting addition to the Reardan gene pool.” Alexie is the master of these literary tools. But critics either don’t get this or don’t want to. They find it easier to dismiss Alexie’s message than to grapple with it.

Alexie said in a recent article that he thinks some people would rather count cuss words than feel the story. “People don’t listen well, people don’t engage with an entire argument…they’ve been taught how to pull out quotes to argue with. Not the totality of an argument.”

With humor as a shield, Alexie has clearly slain a lot of dragons in his own life. “I read books about monsters and monstrous things, often written with monstrous language, because they taught me how to battle the real monsters in my life.” He says he wants his books to give people words and ideas that will help them fight their own monsters.

Unbanned! Eventually the Richland School Board reversed itself and allowed the book. Why? They got around to actually reading it. See:

Richland Board Flips on Book Ban,” Tri-City Herald, 12 July 2011: A1.

Cameron

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