Monday, July 28, 2008

Gail Gauthier Is...The Dissenter

Doesn't that sound like the title of a television show? The Dissenter? Yeah, folks, once again I find myself all alone in my response to a beloved book.

I've seen a few write-ups describing The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian by Sherman Alexie as being based on his life. His bio at his website definitely sounds similar to early events in the book. He most definitely has a compelling, fascinating, and original personal story, growing up on a reservation and making the decision as a teenager to move to a school in a neighboring town. As an adolescent he struggled between two cultures. All great, all interesting.

However, it seemed to me that as a piece of fiction, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian was...choppy. A lot of events are touched upon but not exactly woven into a story. There's a great deal of tell in this book. For instance, three very interesting characters die in the course of the story. However, we see so little of the characters that their deaths don't have the power they could have had if we'd known them better. We know that Arnold, the main character, is torn up about the deaths because he tells us so. But most of what I know is from what he's told me. I never saw a lot in real scenes.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian
was last year's big YA book. What I find so fascinating about that situation is that Alexie published another book last year with a teenage main character, a wonderful, unique, magical book called Flight.
Flight, however, was published as an adult book. What's going on here?

I think Part-time Indian could be described as a formulaic YA book. It uses a first-person outsider narrator who comments on life. While I found the voice flat so that a lot of the jokes didn't work for me, others may have found it to be the edgy, hip voice that, again, has become part of the YA formula. As I mentioned before, you have characters dying, which is adored in YA. Part-time Indian could be described as a problem book, for those folks who still like those. (Arnold truly does have problems, what with alcoholic parents and feeling that he's being rejected by his tribe for wanting to leave the reservation.) It has an uplifting ending.

Flight, has a magical realism element as the young main character, who appears to die at the opening of the book, experiences shifts into other bodies. We're not talking another realistic teen school experience here, though the story is uplifting. I definitely didn't feel I was reading formula YA when I was reading it. I thought I was reading something young people would love, if they could just find it, but I wasn't reading another run-of-the-mill YA story.

I'm Y.A., and I'm O.K. discusses some of the thinking behind publishers' decisions regarding classifying books as YA or adult fiction. I'm guessing that someone decided that Alexie shouldn't bring out two YA books in the same year. I can understand that. But I also feel...saddened...that the book that followed the recognizable YA format that everyone understands and feels comfortable with was wildly embraced, while the book that was just plain wonderful couldn't even be considered for bigtime YA lovin' because it wasn't published as YA.



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