The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian written by Sherman Alexie, illustrations by Ellen Forney, Little Brown, 2009, ISBN: 978-031-601-3697
Arnold Spirit Jr., or Junior as he’s known to his friends, was “born with water on the brain.” This has plagued him with a host of physical maladies, including a skinny body, oversized head, poor eyesight, and a lisp. Despite these problems, he is an intelligent and relatively happy child, that is, when he isn’t being picked on by other children on the Indian reservation. Lucky for him, he has his best friend Rowdy, “the toughest kid on the rez”, to protect him. Rowdy’s life is hard for different reasons. Because of the beatings he receives from his alcoholic father, he has adopted an angry and cold attitude to survive.
When Junior transfers to Reardon High School, a rich and affluent school off the reservation, he is at first miserable to be away from his family and friends. Soon, he realizes the advantages of attending a school with more resources and opportunities. The other students treat him well and he soon develops a crush on a white girl named Penelope. Now he is stuck between two worlds: the rich, white world of school, and the poor, Indian world of the reservation. Trying to navigate these two extremes becomes all the more difficult when the Reardon basketball team, on which he plays, competes against his old school’s team on which Rowdy is the star. Their friendship is tested by the game and Rowdy’s conviction that Junior is leaving him and the rest of the reservation behind.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a wonderful coming of age story about a boy’s struggle with assimilation. Junior is a very sympathetic narrator. Because he is a comic book artist, he sometimes tells his story in pictures as well as words. Some of the pictures, as the one below, reveal much about his inner conflict being stuck between two worlds.
The book is filled with a lot of hardship. As Junior admits early in the story, “I’m fourteen years old and I’ve been to forty-two funerals.” Alexie doesn’t refrain from showing the harsh life of the reservation. There are deaths that come from violence, alcoholism, and poverty (Junior’s dog, for example, is shot because the family can’t afford to take him to the vet for treatment). While this realism is brutal, Junior’s story is not completely bleak. Part of what helps the reader through the harsh realities of reservation life is Junior’s sense of humor. Alexie is a very funny writer (“And if God hadn’t wanted us to masturbate, then God wouldn’t have given us thumbs.”), which makes this semi-autobiographical tale funny and poignant.
The book also offers a great depiction of how people of color often have to navigate two worlds growing up. Junior is both attracted and repelled by aspects of Native American and White culture. How he balances these two identities illustrates the challenge many students face between “acting white” and remaining faithful to their culture.
Fourteen-year-old Arnold Spirit Jr. is stuck between two worlds. He’s got his life on the Spokane Indian Reservation with his family and best friend Rowdy. He’s also attending an all-white school where he’s the only Indian, outside of the school mascot. What he picks up and leaves behind as he travels between these two realities is what makes up The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.
Information about the author
From the author’s page on Amazon.com, we learn that “Sherman Joseph Alexie, Jr. (born October 7, 1966) is a poet, writer, filmmaker, and occasional comedian. Much of his writing draws on his experiences as a Native American growing up on the Spokane Indian reservation. He currently lives in Seattle, Washington. His combinations of poetry, short stories, novels, and films have won several awards. Some of his best-known works are The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1994), a book of short stories, and Smoke Signals (1998), a film of his screenplay based on The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. His first novel, Reservation Blues, received one of the fifteen 1996 American Book Awards. His first young adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, is a semi-autobiographical novel that won the 2007 U.S. National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.”
English, History, Art
How does the novel shape your understanding of life on the reservation?
Why does Junior feel so guilty after his team’s victory in the basketball game?
Reading Level / Interest Age
Grade 9 and up
The book contains profanity and deals frankly with a lot of issues, including alcohol, violence, poverty, bullying, and masturbation. As a result, it is frequently challenged by schools and libraries. The book has received many awards, including a National Book Award for Young People’s Literature in 2007. Its realistic portrayal is semi-autobiographical and, while difficult to read in parts, offers students a story of hope that they can overcome negative circumstances.
Why did I include this title?
I love Sherman Alexie’s work and was thrilled when I saw he had written a young adult novel. He brings his characteristic humor and pathos to this coming of age story. The illustrations add to the story’s meaning and make the novel both funny and poignant.