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

Cover of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Captain’s Log:

Module 15

Port of Call: Alexie, S. (2007). The absolutely true diary of a part-time indian. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.

First Lines: I was born with water on the brain. Okay, so that’s not exactly true. I was actually born with too much cerebral spinal fluid inside my skull. But cerebral spinal fluid is just the doctors’ fancy way of saying brain grease.

Summary: Arnold “Junior” Spirit is an indian teenager living in the town of Wellpinit on the Spokane Reservation. He is frequently bullied and only has one friend, Rowdy, who is always getting into fights. Junior’s life is hard, his family lives in poverty, and yet he is still fighting off the apathy and hopelessness he sees overwhelming others. He draws cartoons (often included and providing greater insight in the book) and on his first day of high school he gets so mad at seeing that their textbooks are 30 years old that he throws a book and accidentally hits the teacher. His teacher comes to see him afterwards and pleads with him to get off the rez while he still has that energy and anger to want to change inside of him, so Junior switches to Reardan High School in an all-white town 22 miles away. Seen as ‘betraying’ his people, his friend Rowdy stops talking to him, and he is outcast by the rez society even more than he already was. On top of that, he must try and fit in at his new school in the face of oftentimes blatant racism.

A Cartoon drawn by Junior

First Impressions: This was the first book I have read from the perspective of a modern native american living on a reservation. I knew living conditions were poor, but had no idea how poor. This book is semi-autobiographical for Sherman Alexie, and I found it to be a fascinating, sometimes horrifying read. I read this book very quickly and would be very interested in reading a sequel.

Suggestions for use: This is a story about persevering in the face of adversity so I would recommend it be read by teenagers having trouble fitting in. I also feel this book addresses culture-clash and race issues in a powerful way, so this book is recommended for pretty much anyone else – we all deal with racism at some point in our lives.

Reviews:

Publishers Weekly: “/* Starred Review */ Screenwriter, novelist and poet, Alexie bounds into YA with what might be a Native American equivalent of Angela’s Ashes, a coming-of-age story so well observed that its very rootedness in one specific culture is also what lends it universality, and so emotionally honest that the humor almost always proves painful. Presented as the diary of hydrocephalic 14-year-old cartoonist and Spokane Indian Arnold Spirit Jr., the novel revolves around Junior’s desperate hope of escaping the reservation. As he says of his drawings, “I think the world is a series of broken dams and floods, and my cartoons are tiny little lifeboats.” He transfers to a public school 22 miles away in a rich farm town where the only other Indian is the team mascot. Although his parents support his decision, everyone else on the rez sees him as a traitor, an apple (“red on the outside and white on the inside”), while at school most teachers and students project stereotypes onto him: “I was half Indian in one place and half white in the other.” Readers begin to understand Junior’s determination as, over the course of the school year, alcoholism and self-destructive behaviors lead to the deaths of close relatives. Unlike protagonists in many YA novels who reclaim or retain ethnic ties in order to find their true selves, Junior must separate from his tribe in order to preserve his identity. Jazzy syntax and Forney’s witty cartoons examining Indian versus White attire and behavior transmute despair into dark humor; Alexie’s no-holds-barred jokes have the effect of throwing the seriousness of his themes into high relief. Ages 14-up.”

Staff. (2007). The absolutely true diary of a part-time indian. Publishers Weekly, 254(33), 70.
School Library Journal: “/* Starred Review */ Gr 7–10— Exploring Indian identity, both self and tribal, Alexie’s first young adult novel is a semiautobiographical chronicle of Arnold Spirit, aka Junior, a Spokane Indian from Wellpinit, WA. The bright 14-year-old was born with water on the brain, is regularly the target of bullies, and loves to draw. He says, “I think the world is a series of broken dams and floods, and my cartoons are tiny little lifeboats.” He expects disaster when he transfers from the reservation school to the rich, white school in Reardan, but soon finds himself making friends with both geeky and popular students and starting on the basketball team. Meeting his old classmates on the court, Junior grapples with questions about what constitutes one’s community, identity, and tribe. The daily struggles of reservation life and the tragic deaths of the protagonist’s grandmother, dog, and older sister would be all but unbearable without the humor and resilience of spirit with which Junior faces the world. The many characters, on and off the rez, with whom he has dealings are portrayed with compassion and verve, particularly the adults in his extended family. Forney’s simple pencil cartoons fit perfectly within the story and reflect the burgeoning artist within Junior. Reluctant readers can even skim the pictures and construct their own story based exclusively on Forney’s illustrations. The teen’s determination to both improve himself and overcome poverty, despite the handicaps of birth, circumstances, and race, delivers a positive message in a low-key manner. Alexie’s tale of self-discovery is a first purchase for all libraries.”
Shoemaker, C. (2007). The absolutely true diary of a part-time indian. School Library Journal, 53(9), 190.
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