The following three posts are the collection of posting in a series in which the Derlan Family—mother, father and son—discuss the value they find in reading the same book and then talking about it as a family. They read this year’s book, Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Each year, MHC encourages people across Maryland to read and then discuss the One Maryland One Book selection. We believe a great work of literature provides an excellent springboard for discussion about issues critical to our lives and communities.
Do you plan to read the book as a family? We encourage you to visit the Reader Resources section of our website to access Readers’ Guides and other resources which contain helpful context and discussion questions. Please share your comments!
PART ONE: By Sharon Derlan, Mother
Sharon Derlan teaches English at Northern Garrett High School. She is an active volunteer with the New Embassy Theatre of Cumberland, MD. Mrs. Derlan is married to Bill, an editor at Cumberland Times-News and the proud mother of Ben, a student at Allegany High School.
When I was in second grade, our teacher Miss Brown read The Boxcar Children aloud to us. She read only a few pages each day, so when we got to the part where Violet gets sick, we had to wait to hear what happened. Almost 40 years later at a class reunion, my friends and I remembered that anxiety and suspense. It was almost as if those children in the book had been our classmates. My brothers and sisters and I are very different, but we all read To Kill a Mockingbird in high school and we all love the book. We know which of us is most like Scout, and which is more like Jem and we know our dad, who died when the oldest of us was only 10, was like Atticus.
My husband and I wanted to give our son the pleasure we have in words and reading. When he was small we read aloud to him, and the stories we all shared became part of our relationship. We’d quote from the books, “Love you forever, like you for always…” After reading Audrey Penn’s The Kissing Hand, we all gave each other goodbye kisses that way for years.
As Ben grew, it became a little more difficult to share stories this way, but Harry Potter saved us. We all read all of the books, first reading aloud to Ben, and later each of us reading them in turns. We found books on CD to listen in the car on long road trips, like P.B. Kerr’s The Akhenaten Adventure. It is so easy to grow apart as children grow more independent. For me the value of reading and talking about books is in keeping a part of the closeness alive. I also want my son to have the memories of special books; connected to the people he has grown up with, as I have had.
One of the interesting things we’ve found with Absolutely True Diary is that I focused so much more on Junior’s sister, Mary Runs Away than either my husband or son did. She is a girl I have met many times in my teaching career. Talking about the character of Mary led me to talk about some events from my childhood, and about some of the students I taught many years ago. Sharing the book, helps us to share ourselves.
PART TWO: By Bill Derlan, Father
Bill Derlan is an editor at the Cumberland Times-News. In addition to reading and writing, he enjoys gardening and vacations at the beach.
It has been said that the family that prays together, stays together. While that may be true for some, I also believe that the family that reads together, succeeds together.
Our son is 16 now, and we have shared books since he was little. Though his taste in literature is different than that of his mother and me, we frequently manage to find common ground, which leads to great conversation after we have finished. Such is the case with The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.
As Arnold “Junior” Spirit tells his story, bits and pieces of my formative years come back to me. My family was not as dirt poor as his, but we didn’t have a telephone until I was 13 years old, and didn’t have a car until I was 14. We wore hand-me-downs. My maternal grandmother lived with us throughout my childhood.
I had a best friend, and like Junior and Rowdy, we were practically inseparable. Naturally, as teenage boys, we pulled some pretty stupid and somewhat dangerous stunts.
The book gives the reader a close look at the life of despair that most American Indians face on reservations, or, as Junior calls them, “death camps.” I have always been repulsed by their treatment at the hands of the federal government. I’m proud to be an American, but also ashamed.
At any rate, the book is fun to read and, even though it relates great sadness, it is a story of victory over adversity, told in the self-deprecating style of a boy who has nothing to lose.
By reading the same book within several months, we were able to discuss it while the narrative was still fresh in our minds. We agreed that it was humorous and the illustrations were a perfect accompaniment. We were touched and saddened by the fact that Junior’s father couldn’t afford to take his ailing dog to the veterinarian and instead shot the animal.
We talked about the perils of the addiction to alcoholic beverages and how difficult it would be to lose two family members and a close family friend in a short period of time. Reading the same book helps bind us together as a family.
PART THREE: Ben Derlan, Son
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie is a great book with its colorful characters and interesting “diary” first person point of view. It is quite a fascinating read. I liked that I could relate in some ways to the main character, Junior. He is around my same age and we share some of the same interests and hobbies, like drawing, cartoons, and basketball. The book gave me glimpses at a world apart form my own, showing me hardships I have never encountered. Reading the book showed me just how lucky I am. When Junior talks about the worst part of being poor, I could really sympathize for him. I would recommend the book to anyone. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part time Indian gives a great perspective on a different way of life and may lead to more understanding and kindness between us all. In reading this book at the same time as my parents did, we could discuss and enjoy the story as a family. My mom talked about students that she taught who were similar to Junior’s sister, and why she thinks some things are harder for girls to overcome. My dad and I talked more about Junior’s friend Rowdy and how all of us know people who are part friend, part bully.
Ben Derlan is the son of Sharon and Bill Derlan. He is a junior at Allegany High School, where he participates in mock trial, tennis and other clubs and activities.
Have you read the book yet? If so, what character stood out to you in an unexpected way? What do you think Mary Runs away represents in the story…to Junior? We’d love to read your comments and reflections.