An Indian Visits the Talbot County Free Library

by Bill Peak

It's become an annual event in my life. Every year the Maryland Humanities Council selects their One Maryland One Book (the book people all across the state will read more or less at the same time), and every year I worry that the work selected—inevitably a book written for adults—will have little appeal for teens and pre-teens, an age-group we very much want to interest in reading. So what did I think when I learned that this year, for the first time in the history of the program, they'd chosen a work of teen fiction? I worried that our adult patrons wouldn't read it. (Note to Maryland Humanities Council: “Library guys aren't easy to please.”)

But that wasn't the worst of it. Not only was the work written for teens, it was written and drawn for teens. That's right, throughout Sherman Alexie's “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” there are hand-drawn cartoons. Now you have to understand, when it comes to baseball and literature I am a dyed-in-the-wool conservative. Baseball should be played only on living, breathing, sun-drenched grass, and literature should enter our minds only through the medium of living, breathing, meaning-drenched words. There are things a cartoonist can do with his pencil that a writer can't do with hers ... and vice versa. For a writer to resort to cartooning to make his point strikes me as an admission of defeat: I am not a good enough writer to communicate this with words, so I am going to draw you a picture instead.

But one of the hats I wear at the Talbot County Free Library reads “One Maryland One Book Coordinator,” which means that, however reluctantly, I had to check out a copy of Alexie's book and read it.

And I have to admit, I couldn't put it down. Told from the point of view of a young Indian boy who, at the beginning of his freshman year, makes the momentous, politically incorrect decision to attend a white high school “off the rez,” the book is an exploration of all the cross-currents of self-hate and reverse discrimination that can sometimes afflict today's under classes. A story that one might reasonably expect to be very sad turns out (thanks to the great cockeyed wit of its teenaged narrator) to be not only funny but, occasionally, laugh-out-loud funny as well. It also manages to stay true to the experience of adolescent males the world over ... which is code for: “Some people may find some of the material in this book morally objectionable.” But, then again, I suspect some people may find adolescent males in toto morally objectionable.

Oh, and about those cartoons. They end up being a lot of fun too, extending and enhancing the story Sherman Alexie has to tell in the same way that Sidney Paget's original illustrations extended and enhanced Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's. So stop by the Talbot County Free Library when you get a chance and check out a copy of “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” then sign up for one of the book discussions I'll be hosting on September 22 and 26. Who knows, we may all find our opinion improved of the sometimes clownish, sometimes glorious, adolescent male.