The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian: A Novel by Sherman Alexie, illustrated by Ellen Forney.
Little, Brown, and Company, Hachette Book Group, New York, 2007, my edition 2009.
YA realistic fiction, 230 pages not including extras.
Winner of many awards including a National Book Award.
Lexile: 600L .
AR Level: 4.0 (worth 6.0 points) .
NOTE: Due to content, this is not generally recommended for middle school students.
Junior is a Spokane Indian with a life from a Greek tragedy – medical woes, funerals, poverty, and picked on, he still tries to find the humor in life and look for the hope in his future in this semi-autobiographical novel.
Despite all the accolades, and my recent positive experiences of Alexie’s work, I did not expect to love this book the way I did. Alexie seems mostly known for his literary fiction. Diary is a YA book still interesting to the general adult fiction reader. Unlike The Sun is Also a Star, which I might recommend to certain adults, The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian is a teen coming-of-age story that I would recommend to almost any adult reader. Arnold Spirit, Junior, is a Spokane Indian with hydrocephalus, a stutter, and a few other challenges, like dire poverty and 30-year-old textbooks.
Despite a life where the cards seem stacked against him, Junior perseveres, chasing his hope through tragic deaths and ridiculous logistics (how do you get to school 22 miles away when you’re incredibly poor and there’s no bus? Answer: sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you walk.)
Handwritten lists, little comics, and pieces of artwork dot almost every chapter. This artwork perfectly complements and enhances the story (similar to You’re Welcome, Universe). It allows Junior to express his more-than-just-teen anguish in humorous ways. Though this was published first, it reminded me quite strongly of Rafe Khatchadorian from the Middle School series. This might be a good suggestion for high school students who enjoyed those books and are ready for something more challenging (ideologically, since the reading level is 4th-6th grade).
The subtle details of the artwork were considered – it is specifically done on scraps of paper rather than flat on on the page (except occasional full-pages) because “the look makes it clear that Arnold doesn’t have a nice, shiny sketchbook, but instead collects his artwork on scraps of paper.” (Interview with Ellen Forney, paperback extra). We enter Junior’s head in two ways and get to know him even better for the added dimension.
That’s not to say that this novel is perfect. Beyond the comments made to Junior about his own ethnicity, there are numerous uses of gay and later faggot as slurs. This is only half-heartedly defended. Ablist language is also present and originally internalized by Junior. Racist comments do tend to be openly challenged by the text. Quite a lot of swear words make their appearance in this novel, from basic to advanced. I thought the context was appropriate and it wasn’t gratuitous, but other readers may be bothered.
Masturbation is covered as a topic of interest, and Junior is so obsessed with erections that this aspect at first felt gratuitous, but in the end was appropriate for a teenage boy. It always appears off-screen, tapers down eventually, and is also referenced by other characters, so I think this is just a cultural norm rather than a crass attempt to load sex into the book.
One character is bulimic. It’s dealt with rather sensitively at first, but later seems to be forgotten (admittedly in the face of Junior’s much larger worries) and doesn’t come up again, which led me to wonder if it was just a plot device.
Alcoholism is also a major part of the novel. The main character doesn’t drink, but lives in a situation where excessive drinking is normalized and often used as a coping mechanism. His mother holds a steady job but his father remains in the throes of alcoholism. However, I really loved that his father is also portrayed as very loving and a man who truly cares about his family and does his best for them within his addiction and context of powerlessness.
Spoiler The part where his family’s Christmas is ruined, as usual, by his father going on a drinking spree with what little they’ve managed to save – and then coming home to give Junior a five dollar bill was incredible. Even as the reader, being so mad at his dad, but then reading Junior’s amazement and his realization at how badly his father must have wanted to spend that money, yet saved it for his son. This book is just full of moments like that. End of Spoiler
Despite his medical woes, dire poverty, and lack of access to basic resources, Junior is situated within a loving family. Alexie uses the snarky/scared teen voice he didn’t have during his own youth to spread truth about the Native perspective and realities of reservation life. Despite the flaws, this book is an absolute must-read for any adults or teens who won’t be triggered by the content.