Part Time Indian Book Essay Format

The title tells it like it is. Sherman Alexie was born a Spokane Indian. He grew up where the book is set, on a reservation - the "rez" - in Wellpinit, Washington state. He was, like his central character, hydrocephalic at birth, "with too much grease inside my skull". And in his teens he attended Reardan High School, off the reservation, near the rich farm town, where all the other students were white. Many authors hum and ha when asked if their fiction is in any way autobiographical. This one makes no bones about it and yet skilfully manages to transform his actual experience into a novel. True fiction. Absolutely.

Arnold Spirit Jnr, known simply as Junior on the rez, speaks directly to the reader and is both narrator and illustrator, a cartoonist. He feels like rubbish, gets beaten up as a matter of course because he lisps, stutters and looks like a freak, but with a pen in his hand he finds a sense of being "important". He can at least express what it's like living his life. For example, he describes on one page how it "sucks to be poor", and on the next sketches portraits of his parents as they might have been if someone had paid attention to their dreams. His could-have-been mother is smart in her suit, a community college teacher. His another-life father is hip, a professional saxophonist. He doesn't draw what they actually are. He just uses a couple of words for that. She is an ex-drunk. He is a drunk. In fact Junior only knows five Indians who have never drunk alcohol, one of them being his bandana-wearing grandmother: "Drinking would shut down my seeing and my hearing and my feeling."

Junior might have brain damage from surgery and seizures but he is following in grandmother's footsteps, engaged with the world, full of anger and energy. Too full. When he sees his mother's name in a geometry textbook in class, he just cannot bear that his generation are still studying from the same books as the last. There is a graphic illustration of boy throwing a book at his white teacher and breaking his nose. Suspension follows. But then the wounded teacher comes to visit. He isn't happy about Junior's assault but he's also brimful of guilt, as his job has been to educate their culture out of his Indian students. And he has some advice for Junior: "You have to take your hope and go somewhere where other people have hope." And the most hope belongs to white people. So Junior makes the bold decision to leave his home turf and go to Reardan. No matter that he has to walk more than 20 miles to get there each day because there isn't enough money for gas.

He finds friendship with a geek, Rowdy, who teaches him the art of reading. He gets to be the semi-boyfriend of the beautiful, milky Penelope, who wears her bulimia like a badge of honour. Even the jocks learn to respect him, especially when he emerges as a whizz on the basketball court. The only problem is that the league schedule inevitably includes on-court battles against the team from his old school, whose star player used to be his best friend, who sees him as a traitor. And so he must be warrior enough to face his people and defeat them. In his own words, this is "really weird".

Some books are like living organisms. They seem to breathe, laugh, weep, joke, confront, meet you eye to eye. Maybe it's the combination of drawings, pithy turns of phrase, candour, tragedy, despair and hope that makes this more than an entertaining read, more than an engaging story about a North American Indian kid who makes it out of a poor, dead-end background without losing his connection with who he is and where he's from. The writing occasionally relies too heavily on the cartoonesque quip, but mostly it is muscular and snappy with a knack for capturing the detail and overview with wrenching spareness. One chapter is a gem of love and heartbreak. "And a Partridge in a Pear Tree" covers barely two pages and yet it evokes so much as it describes Junior's dad's return from a drunken binge over the holiday period, then the offer to his son of a five-dollar bill scrunched in his boot: "Man that thing smelled like booze and fear and failure." Opening this book is like meeting a friend you'd never make in your actual life and being given a piece of his world, inner and outer. It's humane, authentic and, most of all, it speaks.

· Diane Samuels's plays include Kindertransport and The True-Life Fiction of Mata Hari

Words And Pictures

Sherman Alexie's writing style is lively and exuberant, and his narrator, the teenage Arnold, leaps from one topic to the next. So what do we get in between those leaps? Why pictures, of course.

Ellen Forney's many illustrations offer comical insight into whatever Arnold is experiencing at the moment. Forney uses three different drawing styles for Arnold's pictures: one in which the comics are scribbled, one in which the cartoons look a bit more realistic, and a third style that has a more finished look.

Can you identify which style is which? For an example of the first style, see Figure 1.2. For the second, see 24.2. For the third, see Figure 15.5. What can each drawing style tells us about the picture's subject matter?

But it's not just the pictures that seem scribbled, realistic, and polished. It's also the prose. Check it out:

I was actually born with too much cerebral spinal fluid inside my skull. But cerebral spinal fluid is just the doctors' fancy way of saying brain grease. And brain grease works inside the lobes like car grease works inside an engine. It keeps things running smooth and fast. But weird me, I was born with too much grease inside my skull, and it got all thick and muddy and disgusting, and it only mucked up the works. My thinking and breathing and living engine slowed down and flooded.

My brain was drowning in grease.

But that makes the whole thing sound weirdo and funny, like my brain was a giant French fry, so it seems more serious and poetic and accurate to say, "I was born with water on the brain." (1.1-1.3)

Phrases like "weirdo and funny" are very casual—they're the text version of scribbles. Other phrases, like "brain grease works inside the lobes like car grease works inside an engine," sound more polished. And still other phrases, like the eloquent "my thinking and breathing and living engine slowed down and flooded," sound downright lyrical.

So what is the relationship in this book between words and text? Do the pictures sometimes tell you things that Arnold's words cannot? If so, what?

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