The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Sherman Alexie)

Born "with water on the brain," 14 year old Junior is seizure-prone and poor as dirt. Here he tells the story of life on his Spokane Indian reservation, in all its shocking and gut-wrenching glory. Junior's physical issues and desire for a different life cause him to be something of a target on the "rez," and before long he finds himself enrolled at Reardan, the closest mostly white high school. Violence, cruelty, alcoholism, racism, and tragedy are normal daily occurrences for Junior; though his voice is laden with wit and charm, still the book is peppered with negative stereotypes about the Native American culture.

The oppressive poverty is the worst, and the root of all the other issues. Junior's take:

"It sucks to be poor, and it sucks to feel that you somehow deserve to be poor. You start believing that you're poor because you're stupid and ugly. And then you start believing that you're stupid and ugly because you're Indian. And because you're Indian you start believing you're destined to be poor. It's an ugly circle and there's nothing you can do about it. Poverty doesn't give you strength or teach you lessons about perseverance. No, poverty only teaches you how to be poor."  (pg. 13)

Though it is overrun with stereotypes, the difference for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is that as the narrator, Junior is a funny yet deeply self-reflective Native American. He describes experiences with his culture that cannot be disputed by those of another race. Another consideration is that through use of Junior’s very strong, specific voice, these stereotypes are brought to light to reveal their complex combination of truth and utter ridiculousness.

Because it is so heavy laden with negative stereotypes, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian may at first seem a risk to young readers in promoting the very untrue notion that Native Americans are inferior to other ethnicities. Because of the way Alexie tells Junior’s story, the novel does more good than harm in the realm of typecasts. Awareness of the stereotypes and disputing the untruths promotes the integrity of the Native American culture. Young readers without experience in or with the Native American culture will be surprised at what Junior has to say about his life, but one of the most essential qualities of great literature is that it brings awareness to and appreciation of cultures different from our own. 

Beatrice's Goat (Paige McBrier)

More than anything in the world, Beatrice wants to go to school. Sadly, her west Ugandan family is too poor to buy her books and a uniform to attend. One day, they are given a goat, which changes everything for her family. The children have milk to drink, which makes them healthier. They are even able to make money by selling some of the goat's milk. The goat eventually helps Beatrice's parents build a newer, cleaner, safer place...and it also helps Beatrice achieve her dream of going to school. 

Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream (David Platt)

David Platt has thrown down the gauntlet to materialistic American Christians. American Christians who are among the wealthiest people in the world, who spend jillions of dollars on luxuries and worry about keeping up with the Joneses while millions of people starve to death every day, and most of those are going to Hell without knowledge or believe in Jesus Christ. He writes of his own experiences in some of the darkest places in our world today, and of people he met who go to great lengths just to read, hear, and be taught from the Bible. He also shares about friends within his church family who have had the same experiences, and of the steps some of them have taken to share their material possessions and their faith with people of this world who need them. This book is the best sermon I've ever read, and it will leave every reader with a jolt (not a stir) to immediate action.

The structure of the book is sheer genius. Platt begins with reminding us who Jesus is and that an obedient life of following Him can only be one of reckless abandon. "For when we abandon the trinkets of this world and respond to the radical invitation of Jesus, we discover the infinite treasure of knowing and experiencing Him." (pg. 18) He goes on to explain that the context of the American Dream is to depend on yourself alone for success. "As long as we achieve anything in our own power, we will always attribute it to our own glory." (pg. 46) That American Dream is also clearly present in the church community. "We have convinced ourselves that if we can position our resources and organize our strategies, then in church as in every other sphere of life, we can accomplish anything we set our minds to." (pg. 50) We are relying on ourselves, and that is probably why there are billions of people starving and hurting every day.

He writes about people in our churches, in our towns and cities, and across the world who are struggling to survive, and we could feed an entire family for a day or more on what we spend on a sack of french fries. He challenges us not to feel guilty for what we have, but to reconsider that maybe we have so that we can give.

I could not help but remember throughout this book that, regardless what many if not most Americans (especially here in the shiny gold buckle of the Bible Belt) believe, Jesus Christ was not a middle class white Republican. He lived for and among the most impoverished, most broken, most needy people of the world. He cared about and worked to actively serve those who had desperate physical needs, and He told us to do the very same. And not only that, His last words to us were not to sit on our hands in our multi-million dollar church buildings and hope people will come and hear about the gospel. He told us to GO and TELL.

Among the several other practical suggestions for revolutionizing the way we live to serve the poor and hungry in our world, there are steps Platt lays out for the reader to undergo the Radical Experiment. He is saying that maybe some aren't so sure about how this life will work, so he calls readers to give it one good try. One year of:

1. praying for the entire world "In a world where more than 4.5 billion people are without Christ and more than a billion on the edge of starvation, we have to begin somewhere."
"The multitudes are waiting to hear, and our most urgent need is to pray for the Lord of the harvest to send out Christians into the harvest field." (pg. 186-187)

2. reading through the entire Bible "If we want to know the glory of God, if we want to experience the beauty of God, and if we want to be used by the hand of God, then we must live in the Word of God." (pg. 192)

3. sacrificing money for a specific purpose "Our hearts follow our money...sacrifice every possible dollar in order to spend your life radically on specific, urgent spiritual and physical needs of the world."(pgs. 193 and 196)

4. spending time in another context "If we are going to accomplish the global purpose of will happen primarily through giving ourselves. This is what the gospel represents, and it's what the gospel requires." (pg. 198)
"...Orphans are easier to ignore before you know their names. They are easier to ignore before you see their faces. It is easier to pretend they're not real before you hold them in your arms. But once you do, everything changes." (pg. 139)

5. and committing to a multiplying community "We will need to show one another [in the local church] how to give liberally, go urgently, and live dangerously." (pg. 206)

 All of this can be carried out however that practically looks in your individual family's life. One year of this radical life will likely lead to a lifetime of reckless abandon to Jesus Christ.

Do you see what I mean? It is impossible to read these 200 pages and not be overcome with the desire to do something, anything to get out of our selfish little materialistic bubbles and start giving of our resources and ourselves to those who need it for the ultimate glory of God. 

Girl Soldier: A Story of Hope for Northern Uganda's Children (Grace Akallo and Faith McDonnell)

Grace Akallo is a young woman who was abducted from her school in the middle of the night to serve as a child soldier and sex slave of the rebel army known as the LRA (stands for Lord's Resistance Army, led by Joseph Kony) in Uganda. She tells stories of the absolutely horrific things she saw, experienced, and was forced to do. This poor girl suffered hell on earth. The good news is, she lived through it, and is using her voice to spread the news of what is happening in northern Uganda. And the sad news is, we need her to keep doing it because it seems like the entire world is ignoring the atrocities that continue to plague the Ugandan people.

Faith McDonnell is an author and humanitarian who became interested in telling the story of the child soldiers in Uganda, and once she met Grace and heard her stories, it was decided that they would co-author this book, in which chapters alternate between Grace's narrative of actual experience and Faith's historical explanation of how these events came to transpire in Uganda. It's a beautifully written book that tells a very dark story, but again, it is one that will change your life forever. 

What I've learned is that in Uganda's history, the most powerful leader (or the one with the biggest army or the best guns) is who gets to be in charge. There has been a crazy, violent, twisted "king of the hill" tug of war for power since Uganda's establishment as a British protectorate in the 1800's. Right now, things are stable with the Ugandan government, but there are factions of rebel armies who roam the countryside and take their anger at not being in power out on innocent civilians. Most of those are children. 

What Grace tells us- from her own personal experience- is that the LRA would raid schools and villages in the middle of the night, when people are most vulnerable. They would abduct the children, and immediately begin the process of dehumanizing them by forcing them to kill a sibling, their parents, or another child. This tactic ensured the child would feel alienated from society and therefore would not attempt to escape. The manner in which the murders took place were the most savage, most violent possible. Smashing heads in, using a panga/machete to chop bodies apart piece by piece, stabbing with bayonets, beating with clubs, cutting lips and eyelids off with razorblades, stabbing through lips and pinning person to the ground with a knife, etc. Many of the killing methods I read about that these children were forced to carry out were so terrible that I have never even heard of them. So incredibly sad. These same methods were used to kill parents, teachers, or village elders who tried to protect the children. 

Once they had taken another life, then the children were trained to be killing machines. They were forced to walk for long distances with no shoes or food, carrying materials and weapons for the army. The girls were given to soldiers as "wives," which really meant that they were raped repeatedly. 

I found it interesting that the Islamic Sudanese were funding the LRA through weapons and militia. 

At this moment, Uganda is slowly recovering. Hundreds of thousands of Ugandan people, including those who were children who were forced to serve in the LRA and people who lost their land/homes/family/lives to the LRA, are living in refugee camps scattered throughout northern Uganda. That is a very slow start to the mountain of needs these people have. They have extremely limited medical care, no government protection, very little food, no access to education, and no clean water. 

Eventually Joseph Kony was driven to Sudan by the Ugandan government's troops. There are still divisions of the LRA who are in and active in Uganda. They repeatedly attack the refugee camps and burn families alive, demand food from the people, and continue to kidnap children. 

There are thousands of children who have been forced to become "night commuters," which means they literally walk up to 10 miles one way each day to make it to a shelter or hospital just so they can sleep without fear of being abducted in the middle of the night by the LRA. Rather than providing for these poor kids who are forced to take such desperate measures, it is reported that they are harassed by men and teenage boys along their route. Some girls have been raped. 

Then there are all the former child soldiers whose innocence was stripped away from them when they were forced to kill- violently. They are trying to re-enter a society which does not understand how to help them. The children's minds and hearts have been changed forever. There are organizations like World Vision who have a presence there in Uganda who have counseling centers to help rehabilitate the children back to a point where they can function within Ugandan culture. Slowly but surely, the country is trying to recover from such a nightmare. 

Included at the end of the book is an exhaustive list of resources for people who have been moved to help the Ugandan people after reading this story. It is wise for the authors to include this, because there is no possible way a person can take all of this in without being moved to action. 

Knowing these things leads me to pray more specifically and exhaustively for the Ugandan people. I am praying for resources and help to arrive soon for the refugees, for the Ugandan government to step it up in caring for these displaced people, for families to be reunited and restored, for physical, psychological, and emotional healing to occur for the people, for the former child soldiers to forgive themselves for what they have been forced to do, and of course for all the orphans left behind in the massacres of the Ugandan people. I pray that the Ugandan culture is restored, and that every orphan child has someone to truly love and care for them.

Welcome to Uganda (Grace Pundyk; Welcome to My Country series by Gareth Stevens Publishing)

This was a wonderful basic-level overview of Uganda's history, government, and culture. The author provides very simple descriptions and explanations of the features of the Ugandan flag, its rivers and lakes, its plants and animals, and its history (including the terrible years of Milton Obote and then Idi Amin). She briefly mentions the existence of child soldiers, but does not explain that they are kidnapped from their families and forced to fight in the rebel LRA army. I suppose that may be a bit too much for young adult nonfiction, though.

I found these points very interesting:
-When a boy turns 15, he is old enough to serve in the Ugandan national army.
-In 1997, President Yoweri Museveni (still serving as President) introduced the Universal Primary Education program, which provides free education for up to 4 children in every family. If a family includes boys and girls, 2 of the students must be girls. If a child has special needs or some sort of physical disability, he or she must be given preference among applicants to local school programs. This program has increased the number of Ugandan schoolchildren from 2.5 million to over 6.5 million.
-Some Ugandans believe that their living elders can curse family members with illness or bad luck.
-Storytelling is a vital part of Ugandan life, and is even included in the school program.
-Popular foods are matooke, ugali, yams, potatoes, cassavas, and luwombo.

I think this book would be a perfect introduction to a 3rd or 4th grader to the Ugandan culture. I think that it would be good for them to read about how difficult it is for children to get an education in Uganda, and would likely prompt them to be thankful for the abundance of opportunities they have here in the United States.

Despite the number of books I have found about Uganda, I am pleased with the consistency in its story, even if I continue to be heartbroken over the plight of this country and its millions of orphans.