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Happy Thanksgiving, Canadians! I’m going to enjoy myself some pumpkin bread, cranberry sauce and wine this weekend as a cheers to you.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie won The National Book Award in 2007 and is a usual suspect on book banning kill lists. These things I didn’t know when it came home with me from the library. My only thought was that I haven’t read many books with Native American characters. Maybe I’ll learn something.

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Born on the same day as his best friend Rowdy, Arnold Spirit came into the world fighting.

I was born all broken and twisted, and he was born mad.

As a child he fought fluid in his brain and seizures. At 14-years-old he fights the brutality and seeming hopelessness of the future that awaits if he stays on the reservation. His weapons are hope, intelligence and a pencil. In love with the universal language of a funny comic, he draws obsessively.

His road forks when he throws a geometry book at his teacher for giving out a 30-year-old text book. The teacher forgives and urges him to go to school outside of the res. This act requires all the courage Arnold can muster and even then he has to figure out how to physically get there when his dad is often too drunk to drive or pick him up.

I had to add my hope to somebody else’s hope. I had to multiply hope by hope.

Arnold struggles at his new mostly white school. The story isn’t so much about his obstacles, but what he does to continue pushing himself and how that spurs positive and negative, sometimes violent, reactions. It’s easy to see why young readers relate to Arnold.  He believes in magic and beauty even though he’s surrounded by depression, alcoholism and avoidable stupid tragedies. He’s so endearing even his bully gets won over.

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Ellen Forney’s most excellent illustration

Aside from his family and best friend, getting a good education is the most important thing to him. He knows it’ll make a difference in his future. One of his new friends at school, Gordy, advises him to read a book three times “before you can know it”. (I can’t imagine reading any book three times, but I can see why authors would love to have their work read three timess.) The point Arnold takes away is that he should set and live up to higher expectations for himself.

I suddenly understood that if every moment of a book should be taken seriously, then every moment of a life should be taken seriously as well.

This story opens up a number of issues many people face and have a hard time asking for help with, especially young people. It touches on living in poverty, abuse, alcoholism, poverty, racism, bulimia, rage – huge topics students would benefit from reading about and even discussing in the classroom. I read this before I knew and was shocked to discover it’s a frequently banned book. The aspects censors take issue with – masturbation, violence, hope and dreams – are an innate part of the story, they’re not there gratuitously.

Even though it’s sad and heavy at times, this is the kind of book that makes me feel better about the world. There’s truth in it. Communities that ban this book are depriving young readers of an opportunity to laugh and cry with a character they would probably want to be friends with and probably want to hug as his losses pile up. Seriously, it started to read like a melodrama, but many of Arnold’s experiences are drawn from Alexie’s own youth. These are real dramas, real pain fictionalized with Ellen Forney’s playful and at times striking illustrations.

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Ellen Forney’s most excellent illustration

There’s laughter and tears and a smart kid getting through a difficult year like a warrior. The first person voice is so authentic I was sorry when the book ended because I missed Arnold. In an interview in the back of the book, Alexie shares that the story is sort of autobiographical. This makes me happy because I want Arnold, Rowdy, the friends he makes and the trees he climbs to be real. And they are, sort of.

This is a book everyone should have the opportunity to read if they want. I enjoyed the story and Forney’s art sends it over the top.

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