The Past Possesses Almost Everything


This weekend I decided to take a quick break from the required reading for my classes and read a book that a classmate lent to me, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. Just a quick background on the book: it is about a boy who grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation without very good schools. He decides that he wants a better education, and he transfers out of the reservation and into a nearly all-white high school in a nearby town. because of that, many of his tribe members hated him and felt that he was a traitor.

Well, this book is a very fast but entertaining read. The last thing I expected was a reference to Euripides in the novel. But, there it was on page 173, during a time when the main character was, you guessed it, grieving the death of a loved one. Junior (main character) said:

"And I hoped I would find stories that would help me. So I looked up the word "grief in the dictionary. I wanted to find out everything I could about grief. I wanted to know why my family had been given so much to grieve about. And then I discovered the answer: Okay, so it was Gordy who showed me a book written by the guy who knew the answer. It was Euripides, this Greek writer from the fifth century BC. A way-old dude. In one of his plays, Medea says, 'What greater grief than the loss of one's native land?' I read that and thought, 'Well, of course, man. We Indians have LOST EVERYTHING. We lost our native land, we lost our languages, we lost our songs and dances. We lost each other. We only know how to lose and be lost.' " (172-3)

Even a character like Junior with minimal education (none in classical literature I'm sure) knows that Euripides got it right so long ago, and no one else can define tragedy and the way we grieve better than him. Instead, we just try to re-write and paraphrase it the way he said it, but no one ever really gets it as well as he did. Finding references to classical literature even in a young adult novel like this has shown me once again, that we will never escape the lessons that "way-old dudes" like Euripides have taught us.

A cartoon from the book:

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