Scott Cawelti Photo
  • That Removed Book about Indians

    • Posted on Apr 19, 2015
    This morning's Courier column--Sunday, April 19.  It's beyond local interest, I think.  Also it's not  about censorship so much as freedom for teachers to use their best professional judgment without fear of one administrator's judgment.   That's what seems to have happened in the Waterloo Public Schools--against their own policy.    

    I took the time to read the "young adult" novel,  "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian," by Sherman Alexie, and found it unalterably appropriate for middle school students.  The administrator asserted it was "unalterably inappropriate," so we have a slight difference of opinion. 


    I’d like to recommend a book for young adults.  I mean a novel that’s written for young adults--teenagers in middle and high school, but I’d like to recommend it for grownups too. 

    It’s Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” published in 2007, and he’s relating his life as a young teenager on a Washington State reservation.  He has since become a best-selling author, poet and screenplay writer. 

    I enjoyed it immensely, far more than expected. More than that, I learned from it, and still ponder what it reveals about Native Americans, their hopelessness, their alcoholism, how much they hate themselves.  And how a lucky few leave despair and hopelessness behind.      

     His first Young Adult novel, “Diary” won the National Book Award, and made multiple bestseller lists.  The NY Times reviewer extolled its memorable prose and painful honesty, calling it Alexie’s best work. 

     So why did this old grownup seek out an 8-year old Young Adult novel?  Because it was “censored,” of course.   Banned books should be first on everyone’s “to read” list, since they’re sure to challenge and awaken readers. 
    Isn’t that what reading is for?   

     Last Sunday’s Courier editorial on “Diary” rightly criticized how one administrator’s decision that “Diary” was “inarguably inappropriate” for middle school students led to its being pulled from middle school classrooms.     
    Inarguably inappropriate?  

    On the contrary, teachers asserted, there was plenty to argue about, given the quality and power of the novel.  That’s why they have a policy that sets up a committee to read and discuss controversial books when parents or students object.  Put bluntly, the administration violated its own stated policy.  
    Apart from that, it’s a bonehead decision because these are exactly the kind of books that should be discussed in a class. 

     I read “Diary” carefully for what might offend parents or students, and found four
    potentially inappropriate features. Remember, the whole novel is written from a 14-year old Native American boy’s perspective as he discovers who he really is over the course of a school year.  “Arnold Spirit,” the character, experiences:  

    • Cursing, including the f-bomb, but sparingly, unlike in dozens of widely available movies. 

    • An ugly racist joke that causes the narrator to punch the jokester’s nose.

    • blasphemy in the form of one cartoon (the narrator creates dozens of cartoons to illustrate his dilemmas).  

    • sexuality, but only in the form of adolescent fantasies, which include masturbation. 

     Now, here’s what’s strange.  Those who advocate pulling it unanimously agree that “Diary” is entirely appropriate for high school students—just not for younger teenagers.  

     So during those three middle school years, younger teenagers are somehow supposed to learn about cursing, sexuality, blasphemy, and racist jokes so they can deal with them when they turn, say, 16? 

     How, I ask?  From older kids?  From hearing three more years of cursing and sex talk from their peers? 

     What’s the best way for younger teenagers to explore adult conflicts?  By reading and discussing them them with classmates and a teacher, in a middle school class. That’s how it’s supposed to work.   

     All of the potentially offensive aspects of Alexis’s novel arise from the narrator’s life and observations as he struggles with alcoholic parents, a crazy sister, bullying, and his tribe’s history as outcasts in their own land.   

    The narrator struggles with frustration, despair, and rage at times.  Everything he does and says that’s offensive makes sense, given his life and outlook as a deeply frustrated, dirt-poor reservation Native American.    

     So Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” deserves to be read, discussed, and celebrated by teenagers and teachers alike as a memorable reflection on growing up poor and outcast.   

     Shame on those who would interfere with that.  
    Go comment!
    Posted in
    • Hot Button Issues
    • Education
    • Cedar Valley Chronicles
    • Censorship
  • Two Genuine Heroes

    • Posted on Apr 05, 2015
    Easter Sunday, 2015--here's today's Courier Column about two heroes, one local, one international.   They seem unrelated, but are in fact connected  by the idea of "hero"--someone who goes above and beyond in sacrificing him/her self for the sake of a larger cause that benefits everyone.  Jesus is the Christians' hero in that sense, of course, but we do have living examples among us.   


    Like “awesome,” and “cool,”  “hero” is a term that gets tossed around like verbal confetti.   

     “Wow, you’re a hero. You stayed up to watch that game!”  “Anyone who gets up before 6:00 to run is heroic!”  We’ve all heard such passing comments, and take them as small talk. 

     More seriously, people who survive horrific accidents and recover also get tagged as heroes.  “She’s a hero—managed to survive six hours in an overturned car underwater.” 

     Yet genuine heroes—self-sacrificing, going above and beyond—are quite rare, and deserve attention and celebration.  On a large scale, Oscar Schindler comes to mind, who risked everything to resist Nazi genocide.  On a smaller scale, peace core volunteers fit the bill, at least the ones I’ve met.   

     Locally, there’s Taylor Morris, who has turned his awful wartime injuries into a challenge to “Improve Your Situation.”   

     I heard him explain his attitude and ongoing life-improvements at a 
    “Ted Talks” event at UNI on March 28.   

     After an IED exploded near him in Afghanistan, he found himself traumatized and helpless—both arms and legs blown away. Few survive such horrendous injuries, but not only has he survived, he’s living a productive and full life, admired and in demand as a speaker and role model, and—get this—an inventor.  

     He’s been busy inventing devices that improve his ability to drive, use prosthetic limbs, and has made “improve your situation” a life motto that applies to all of us.  After receiving support from around the world for his grit and determination, his web site “Situation Improved” invites others to do the same by contributing their own experiences.   

     See for questions that allow you to tell your story.  People who ponder how they can improve whatever situation they find themselves in will benefit. 

     It’s a positive game-changer for those who have faced similar challenges, and not only trauma victims. 

     In another heroes arena, there’s Ayaan Hirsi Ali.  She just published “Heretic,” a book in which she explores and explains the current state of Islam.  Ali was born in 1969 and raised in Somalia as a Muslim, so speaks from direct experience.  

     At 23, she emigrated to Holland, went to graduate school, became a member of the Dutch Parliament, and in 2006 immigrated here, becoming a naturalized American citizen in 2013.  

     That’s unusual and admirable, but nothing truly heroic.   In fact, had she been born and raised a Christian and did what she’s done, few would have noticed.  

     Constant death threats from extremist Muslims make her a hero.   She’s an “apostate,” an “infidel,” a blasphemer, and an atheist. She’s scathing in her books and presentations, in which she roundly questions Islam and its current conflicts.  

     Put bluntly, she won’t shut up, and that puts her life at risk.   

     Thousands of Muslims have been murdered or maimed worldwide for committing the same “crimes,” none of which are criminal in other cultures or religions. 
    As she points out, recently large numbers Muslims have become “radicalized,” meaning they’re returning to the tenets of their original faith, formed in the 7th century.  “Sharia law” governs their approach to justice, and requires beheadings, amputations, and severe lashings for those break those laws.   

     She believes that fundamentalist Muslims need to move beyond their ancient rigid beliefs, which basically insists on one right religion, their own.   They threaten those who disagree with terrible punishments, including death by beheading or stoning.  “Fatwas” –death threats--are issued worldwide almost daily.  Even bloggers get murdered if they criticize Islam.   

     Other world religions have undergone reforms, and so must Islam, she insists.   

     Ali’s book “Heretic” deserves attention for its brave and serious discussion of Islamic reformation.  And Ayaan Hirsi Ali certainly deserves “hero” for writing it.
    Go comment!
    Posted in
    • Personalities
    • Hot Button Issues
Contact Scott Header
Contact Scott Photo
Brothers Blood Book
James Hearst
Landscape Iowa CD