Parents wonder if Sherman Alexie's award-winning book, 'The True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,' is appropriate
A group of Lake Oswego parents is up in arms about the inclusion of the book, 'The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian' in the curriculum in the high schools' freshman English classes.
'There are so many great works of literature that teach such powerful messages,' said Erik Schimmelbusch of Schimmelbusch Law Group PC and parent of a freshman at Lake Oswego High School. 'I'm not sure why the schools have chosen a book that is listed second on the American Library Association's list of 'Most Frequently Challenged Books.''
Schimmelbusch was alerted to the book when the oldest of his six sons, Kurt Schimmelbusch, came home from school earlier this month and said, 'I was assigned to read a terrible book, I am so embarrassed.'
In a letter to Principal Bruce Plato, Schimmelbusch wrote that, 'We find this book to be offensive, and an affront to the values that we hold as parents. Our primary concerns are with the book's sexually offensive content and its blatant disrespect for the Christian faith.'
It is true, the book contains descriptions of masturbation, racism, depictions of sex, foul language and an irreverent cartoon of Jesus Christ on page 171 with a caption below that reads 'Jesus farteth and burpeth in harmony! Miraculous!'
While this all sounds shocking, Plato supported the literary choice by saying, 'Our teachers have found that one of the biggest strengths of this book, and possibly the more important reason it appeals to high school students, is the authenticity of not only Junior's (the narrator's) experiences, but also the authenticity of his voice.'
'The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time American Indian' is a New York Times best-seller and the 2007 National Book Award Winner for Young Adult Fiction. It is Alexie's loosely biographical story of a 14-year-old Native American boy who leaves his school on a Washington reservation, attends an all-white high school and deals with many of the coming-of-age challenges of freshman everywhere.
'Alexie's book is taught in high schools across the country because of the way it deals with issues of identity, overcoming obstacles, the power of friendship and finding community,' said Kimberly Campbell, assistant professor of education at Lewis and Clark College.
'Alexie's novel is consistent with the the freshman English focus on the central themes of maturation, diversity, and the development of compassion, empathy and respect for others,' said Rollin Dickenson, English department chair at Lakeridge High School where the book is included as an extra selection for freshman English teachers. 'Those teachers who have taught (the book) have been impressed by the students' sincere engagement with the text.'
Schimmelbusch and others are not buying this. In his letter to the school board, Schimmelbusch painstakingly listed some of the parts of the book he found most disturbing including the narrator's diatribe about masturbation that includes, 'I'm proud of it. I'm good at it. I'm ambidextrious.'
'I have yet to hear from a parent that he or she approves of this book,' he said.
'Dish up enough sexual imagery (a child masturbating while viewing pornographpy), some shock factor (the Jesus cartoon …) and a child's sexual feelings toward an adult teacher (bordering on pedophilia …) and it is bound to be 'engaging' for many high school students,' Schimmelbusch wrote in an email to the Review.
'Amazing, disgusting and surprising for our Lake Oswego community,' said Jeff Rogers, father of a seventh-grader at Waluga Junior High School. 'I cannot believe this is a required read or that it's even an option in our school district.'
To be perfectly clear, this book is not required reading at the high schools.
'It is inaccurate to state that the LOHS English department has selected the book as assigned freshman reading,' said Ricki Korach, department chair. 'The book is on the extended list of titles that are not part of the core curriculum for freshman and are not required reading. The list offers options for the teacher to use as independent reading, in literature circles or with an entire class.
'Because the books on that list include contemporary issues, language use, cultural perspectives, and narrative voices, students/parents always have the choice to opt out of reading a particular selection and choosing another book on the list as an alternative.'
Schimmelbusch insisted in his letter to the board that 'students are issued the book without warning as to the specific content.'
Board chair Curt Sheinin responded that this accusation is 'inaccurate.'
'In overviewing the curriculum at the beginning of the year, the teacher made clear the distinction between the core (required) readings and the extended (optional) readings for the year, explaining the opt out possibility for the latter.
'When 'The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian' was introduced to students during the class session before they received the books, the teacher talked at length about the content of the book, specifically the voice of the narrator, and read opening pages out loud. She told them there were controversial aspects to the book, such as profanity and sexual references, and that they should come to her to talk about options if they had questions or concerns.'
Schimmelbusch's son, Kurt, has opted out of reading the book and, instead, is reading 'Cold Sassy Tree,' by Olive Ann Burns.
'There are just so many different books they could choose to teach and that would lift the students,' Schimmelbusch said. 'This book is not lifting. It is crude.'
Lake Oswego is far from the first school district to hear from parents that would like to have the book pulled from the curriculum.
'There have been quite a few instances of 'True Diary' being banned by various public schools - and we've heard about quite a few lately, even one not far from where the book is set (Spokane),' said Christy Cox, from fallsapart productions, Alexie's agent in Seattle.
The first instance that Alexie and his staff are aware of actually happened in 2008 here in Oregon at Crook County High School in La Pine.
'The book is actually a celebration of the compassion a small town of white conservatives showed … an Indian boy they ended up loving,' Alexie told The Bulletin in Bend at the time. 'It's funny, a book about accepting others is being challenged in the kind of town it celebrates.'