Inaugurating our latest regular series: BOOK vs. BOOK. It’s a death match between somehow-related examples of young people’s fiction… because Lord knows, no one would ever read more than one book.
The books: Sherman Alexie, THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN; Mildred D. Taylor, ROLL OF THUNDER, HEAR MY CRY
SPOILER ALERTS for some key scenes in both books.
These are not books, at first glance, that one might think to compare. And yet if you happen to read them side-by-side (as I did a year and a half ago, when doing the research for this article), the similarities are surprising.
ROLL OF THUNDER, HEAR MY CRY is a classic, published in 1976 and winning the following year’s Newbery, set amid a Black community in Great Depression Mississippi. Nine-year-old Cassie’s family struggles to keep their land — their only hope of being able to determine their own future against every twist of unjust fate.
THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN, on the other hand, is a contemporary novel, told in text and comics, about the repercussions of Junior (a.k.a. Arnold Spirit Jr.)’s decision to leave his crappy school on “the rez” in favor of the well-funded white school nearby.
Both books open on the first day of school, with our respective protagonists’ excitement turning to disillusionment and anger when they realize, via the pathetic state of their textbooks, just how little their education is actually valued by anyone with any power. Both Cassie and Junior rebel by rejecting their books, and in neither case does it go exactly as planned.
We get the picture: the world is stacked against them, but these kids are fighters. But they may pay a price for that that they can’t quite imagine — yet.
More strikingly, these books also share some fundamental similarities in the scene I found most powerful in each. With a lot of buildup so we understand just what is being risked with this choice, Taylor and Alexie have their protagonists each choose to stand up to more powerful white kids, whose outward friendliness is heavily spiked with racism and condescension.
And then Taylor and Alexie give us the same painful twist: after all that courage in standing up for their own dignity and self-respect, Cassie and Junior are met with bafflement. It’s not that the white kids are angry; it’s not that they fight back and punish our heroes; rather, they just don’t get it at all. Junior and Cassie’s defiant stands deflate into irrelevance in the face of their would-be antagonists’ genuine inability to understand why they are so angry.
Both scenes are so well done, it’s hurting me just writing about it. I think these books’d be worth reading for this alone, but as it happens, they’ve each got a lot more to offer.
THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY has an irreverence I love, with hilarious observations and exactly the kind of obsession with, and half-angst-half-pride about, masturbation that we expect from a teenage boy.
I like that Alexie doesn’t shy away from showing the really destructive elements of reservation culture — its alcoholism; crushing and unromanticized poverty; a misplaced toughness borne of oppression and the absence of any imaginable future — without ever disrespecting his characters and their humanity. Also, as I recently mentioned, I was quite struck by some small references to how homophobia distorts Junior’s friendship with his also-straight best friend. There’s a lot here that moved me, and made me think.
Unfortunately, there’s a point in the book, about two-thirds of the way through, when I started to find it really tough going. Alexie kind of piles on the tragedy, with (I said SPOILER ALERT!!!!!!) the deaths of two emotionally central characters in a row. The book is described as “semi-autobiographical,” and I suspect that this is one of those autobiographical parts, because it’s the kind of thing that actually happens in life but doesn’t really work in fiction.
Which, actually, is interesting; I’ve long remembered a Joss Whedon interview where he described his philosophy of writing as “put the characters in the worst situation you can imagine, and then make it worse.” Which I think is just brilliant (and exactly why BUFFY’s season two plot arc is so phenomenal, but I’ll save those discussions), so here you would think Alexie is just following that advice and I would love it, but I don’t.
This suggests to me that the real plotting secret is something more specific, like maybe that the escalation of badness has to be of a qualitatively different kind; at a certain point, DIARY begins to feel, unfortunately, like an undifferentiated mass of depression. And this might also be personal taste, because I’ve found some other books with really depressed narrators, like Laurie Halse Anderson’s also-wonderful TWISTED, to be hard to wade through as well.
But anyway, that’s my one caveat about Alexie’s really amazing book, his first for young adults, and I truly hope not his last.
ROLL OF THUNDER, meanwhile, manages something I’ve seen in only the best political books (Katherine Paterson’s LYDDIE is one of the few I’d put up on this same pedestal): a real exploration, in plausible and human terms, of the tradeoffs involved in some strategy for facing oppression — with absolutely no abstraction, just the logical development of choices made by characters I care about.
What Taylor does (and maybe this is closer to what Whedon meant?) is put her characters in what seem like truly impossible circumstances, and then really examine the consequences of their reactions. She does this, somehow, without descending into either nihilism or easy answers.
How this plays out is that everyone in and around Cassie Logan’s family has their own plan, more or less explicitly, for trying to make it; it goes the worst for the one who goes the farthest to ingratiate himself to the white power structure, but no one gets by without scars. The Logan family, and especially Cassie, have to learn to make compromises they hate in order to survive. But they also have to learn that sometimes you have to stand up for yourself, your dignity, your family and your life, or none of that was worth protecting.
It’s the way Taylor believably navigates that particular set of contradictions that makes the book incredible; I can’t think of any other that really manages this as well.
Advantage: THUNDER. But since it actually is possible to read more than one book, do yourself a favor and read them both, and savor it. In fact, I may just read them again.