Monday, January 21, 2008

Margaret, the Cowardly (future) Librarian

In the comments on Kristin's first post on The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Amanda asked a question (or rather questioned a discussion question) that I wanted to answer here, in a full post. Going through a recommended discussion questions for the book online, Amanda found a prompt that stated that Alexie's book "showed a different side of American Indian life than many other books do." Amanda was puzzled by this assertion because, as she correctly pointed out, the story revolves around many things that are common touchstones throughout American Indian literature- or at least, I assume they are... which brings us to the title of my post, and the meat of my response to Amanda's question:

I have never read much American Indian literature- or really any at all, unless you count Walk Two Moons which I don't, even a little bit.* I haven't read it because I am, as the title of this entry states, a cowardly future librarian. I am scared of reading Serious Books about the Problems of America where there is No Hope In Sight for the protagonist and I have generally assumed that much of American Indian literature could be encompassed by that description. When I do read such literature, for whatever reason, I can often enjoy it- like Make Lemonade by Virgina Euwer Wolf, which I adore- but I basically never seek out such titles for myself. This is a serious reading limitation, and one I am definitely interested in moving past (see: my dedication to actually finishing The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing), but it's also a quality that gives me a special perspective on how this book might be different from the majority of American Indian lit: for all that it addresses the traditional hardships of American Indian life today, the book itself feels hopeful- Junior's life seems hopefully.

It's odd to say that a book which inflicts three major deaths on its protagonist over the course of maybe 40 pages and three weeks pulls its punches, and yet, I think that this book does, just a little bit. White characters that ooze menance to begin with, and are racist and cruel, like Roger and Penelope, quickly become kind, friendly characters without much effort on Junior's part. His parents might be alcoholics or recovering alcoholics, but they love and support Junior in very real ways, as he makes an effort to point out again and again. As much as getting to and from school is difficult for Junior, the work he needs to do to do well there appears to pose little or no challenge to him. When he is attacked by his old friends from the reservation, or mean-spirited teachers at his school. his new, all-white schoolmates band behind him in support- so on and so forth. There are more examples I could name, but I think you see my point. I think this backdrop of not so badness is a definite artistic choice on Alexie's part and, I'd imagine, it's probably something of a departure in tone from his other novels and possibly a different angle from which to examine American Indian life.

Personally, as both a cowardly future librarian and a current children's bookseller, it's also an artistic decision I can get behind. There are bits of it that chafe me a bit- like, for example, the fact that Junior and Penelope ostensibly get together because he finds out about her bulimia, but that her illness is never mentioned again- but on the whole, I think it's good because it keeps the book from being so unrelentingly grim that a cowardly reader (me) or a young one (the book's intended audience) would get turned off, or tune out.

Rather than having every part of Junior's environment be painful, this brightening of reality makes the moments where punches aren't pulled- Rowdy's reaction to Junior's decision to leave the Rez, Junior's sister's death, Eugene's death- so much more painful, because the rest of the narrative hadn't forced me to distance myself from Junior's life. I wasn't made to feel that Junior's life was easy, not by a long shot, but at the same time I wasn't made to feel that his life was so painful or so difficult I could not even hope to relate to it-- even though I am white, privileged, and the child of a staunchly middle-class family chock full of college graduates, Alexie didn't make me feel like The Enemy, he made me feel like a friend Junior could trust, and opened me up in a way Abject Misery, Perfectly Described could not have. And I think that's important, because cowards like me need to read more books like this.

* ...unless you count the time sophomore year of high school I lied and told my appalling English teacher** that Sharon Creech was Native American so I could use Walk Two Moons as my outside reading book during the term we dedicated to Native American lit.

** The English teacher in question, for Sherry's benefit, was Ms. Johnson. I don't know if you were lucky enough to miss her reign of terror at BLS, but I thought I'd specify, just in case you weren't.


Julie said...

Hello, future not-so-cowardly librarian! I think you raise a really interesting point about the kind of books we choose to read. I will be the first to confess that I don't usually seek out "Serious Books" either. I'm not a huge fan of nonfiction, mainly because it doesn't hold my interest the way fiction does. There are a ton of books I've skipped because the subject matter seems too heavy, or at least too heavy for my current mood. (Incidentally, I've started doing this with movies, too.) I love reading YA (and have a not-so-secret penchant for the occasional romance novel). I suppose this is the point where I reveal that I am actually a librarian (which I am), but my point is that it was working in libraries that helped me let go of my sense of what I "should" be reading. I'm not sure if your dilemma is exactly the same, but they sound similar. I had this sense, cultivated by all those "books you should read before going to college" lists in high school, that there were all these books I should read. Then I started working in libraries and saw the sheer volume of the number of books published each month. I had this revelation one day when it hit me that since there were so many books in the world, I really only needed to read the ones that most interested me. The revelation was confirmed when one of my other book clubs suggested War and Peace and I never got past page 13. I'll probably go back to it someday, but there were other things I wanted to read at the time. So my new rule in life is to read whatever strikes me (I've also finally gotten to the point where I put down a book without finishing it if I don't like it - this was a major struggle). I suppose I could fall into a rut and miss out on some good literature - this is one of the reasons why it's so cool to have people to talk about books with and get more ideas. Plus I've found, like you, that when I stumble on more serious works, I enjoy them, but usually not if I feel obligated to read them. Anyway, I think we should read what interests us, without shutting out the unexpected books that tumble across our paths. What does everyone else think? What are your "rules" for selecting/finding/reading books?

kristin said...

I absolutely agree that it's a waste of time to read a book that doesn't interest you, just because some person or some list said you "should!" I don't always shy away from serious books or adult books myself, but I do read a lot of "lighter" things too. I'm a professional writer, so often what I'm reading for pleasure is something different enough from what I'm writing that reading it will be a true escape, rather than just feeling like more work. The last book I wrote was very dark and heavy, and I had a terrible time finding ways to get my mind away from it. I started reading mysteries, which helped. These days I've been reading a lot of Jane Austen, whom I always find refreshing. :)