One of the values of the novel

I was pretty young, maybe in grade school, when I figured out that one of the joys of reading novels was getting into someone else's head. Sometimes I tried to imagine being one of my friends. What would that be like? Did they see color the same way as me? What did they think about? How did they choose whether to be kind to an unpopular kid? But novels answered -- and still answer -- those questions for me. I can, to some extent, walk around in someone else's shoes.

These thoughts have risen up again in me because I just finished reading The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. It's a 14-year-old's account of life on the res and in the white school in town. Alexie is a fine writer and the young main character, Junior, rings true. He is 14, though Alexie gives him more fluency than any 14-year-old I know, the better to let us walk with him in his shoes.

Junior's shoes are painful to walk in. He is living the same racism I've seen this year in St. Louis and north St. Louis County where Ferguson is. His basketball team wins against the Indians, his old school team, and he feels like David against Goliath. Then he looks at his friends from the reservation and recognizes that he is the Goliath, that nobody on the Indian team will go to college, and, in fact, some of them probably didn't eat breakfast that morning because there's no food in the house.

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The Absolutely True Diary is a funny book. The insults Junior trades with his best friend, his assessment of his relationship with the girl he likes, his explanations for his growing popularity at the white school are laugh-out-loud funny. It's an adventure book too, recounting the risks a teenage boy takes and the battles he fights. But most of all, it's a chance to walk in his shoes.

I've been keenly aware this past year how unaware I am of most of the suffering of St. Louis African Americans. I don't walk in their shoes. I don't experience daily indignities, much less outright in justice. And Sherman Alexie gives me a taste of that life that's flavored with compassion to offset the cruelty.


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