Module 15: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

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This was one of the most enjoyable, poignant and well written young adult books I have read in a while. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian tells the story of Junior, a bright ‘rez kid’ living on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Junior has a lot of issues, he has a variety of physical problems, parents who struggle with alcohol, a sister who won’t leave the basement and very little money. With a teacher’s encouragement, Junior leaves his underfunded and understaffed high school on the reservation and travels twenty miles each way to a prestigious school where he is the only native American student. The kids on the reservation hate him for this perceived cultural betrayal, and the rich white kids at the new school want nothing to do with him. Even getting to and from school can be an insurmountable challenge for Junior, and his lack of money precludes him from participating in activities that are everyday parts of life for his new classmates.  Junior falls in love with a gorgeous yet troubled girl, makes one friend with the geeky smart kid and finally finds a way to be accepted by joining the basketball team.

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Things are challenging for Junior back at home as well. His sister finally left the basement, but only to run off to get married and live in a trailer in Montana. His beloved grandmother is hit by a drunk driver, and her last dying words are, “Forgive him.” Alcohol is a destructive force on the reservation, with most adults struggling with alcohol or at least being directly and adversely affected by it. Junior’s own dad, while loving and well meaning, disappears for days at a time on alcohol fueled benders. Family tragedies, poverty and issues between friends are woven throughout the book, yet somehow, there is still a feeling of hope. Junior is so bright that he just might be one to make it and break this terrible cycle of poverty and alcoholism. He sees everything with a wry detachment and sense of humor, and the brilliant illustrations by Ellen Forney support the theme of not taking everything too seriously.

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Life is like this for some people, and most people can certainly relate to at least some of the themes in this book. It is important for young adults to read books like this that show the struggles faced by families and the ways they pull together to get stronger and grow. This book doesn’t end with everything perfect and wrapped in a bow, but neither does real life. I would recommend this book be used in a Grade 5 – 6 book club of setting as it will take a while for a student to read. The book brings up many personal and relevant issues that young people may be facing, and those conversations happen best in a guided discussion group.

Alexie, Sherman The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007) New York, Little Brown and Company.

Review One

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, Chris. (2007). The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Retrieved from http://www.schoollibraryjournal.com/article/CA6476720.html?q=%22absolutely+true+diary%22.

Review Two

Arnold Spirit Jr. is the geekiest Indian on the Spokane Reservation. He wears chunky, lopsided glasses. His head and body look like Sputnik on a toothpick. When he doesn’t stutter, he lisps. Arnold is a 14-year-old high school freshman. When he goes outside he gets teased and beaten, so he spends a lot of time in his room drawing cartoons. “I think the world is a series of broken dams and floods,” he says, “and my cartoons are tiny little lifeboats.”

THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN: If that line has an unexpected poetry to it, that’s because it was written by a poet. Arnold’s creator, Sherman Alexie, grew up on the Spokane Reservation in tiny Wellpinit, Wash., and made his name as a poet before expanding into short stories, novels, screenplays, film directing and stand-up comedy. “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” is Alexie’s first foray into the young adult genre, and it took him only one book to master the form. Recently nominated for a National Book Award, this is a gem of a book. I keep flipping back to re-read the best scenes and linger over Ellen Forney’s cartoons.

To say that life is hard on the Spokane rez doesn’t begin to touch it. “My parents came from poor people who came from poor people who came from poor people,” Arnold explains, “all the way back to the very first poor people.” The kid was born with 10 too many teeth, so he gets them pulled — all in a single day, because the Indian Health Service pays for major dental work only once a year. When Arnold cracks open his geometry textbook, he finds his mother’s name written on the flyleaf. “My school and my tribe are so poor and sad that we have to study from the same dang books our parents studied from,” Arnold says. “That is absolutely the saddest thing in the world.”

Enraged, Arnold beans his geometry teacher with the book and gets suspended from school. The targeted teacher, Mr. P., visits Arnold at home and gives him a piece of advice: Get out. Mr. P. has seen too many promising students — like Arnold’s sister, Mary Runs Away — fade year by year, beaten down by poverty and hopelessness. “The only thing you kids are being taught is how to give up,” Mr. P. says.

“The Absolutely True Diary” tracks Arnold’s year of getting out. He transfers to Reardan High, 22 miles away, a gleaming campus full of wealthy white kids, with a computer room and chemistry labs. He’s the only Indian — if you don’t count the school mascot. Early on, Arnold fears being beaten up by the jocks. “I was afraid those monsters were going to kill me,” he says. “And I don’t mean ‘kill’ as in ‘metaphor.’ I mean ‘kill’ as in ‘beat me to death.’” (The comedian in Alexie pops up as often as the poet.) Arnold’s toughness soon earns him their respect, though, as well as a spot on the varsity basketball team.

What he can’t win back is the love of his neighbors at home. On the rez he’s considered a traitor. His best friend punches him in the face. When Reardan plays Wellpinit High in basketball, the Indians rain so much abuse on Arnold that a race riot nearly breaks out. Triumph and grief come in equal measure. Arnold figures out that he’s smarter than most of the white kids, and wins the heart of a white girl named Penelope. (“What was my secret?” he says. “If you want to get all biological, then you’d have to say that I was an exciting addition to the Reardan gene pool.”) Meanwhile, his father’s best friend is shot and killed, and his sister dies in a trailer fire. “I’m 14 years old, and I’ve been to 42 funerals,” Arnold says. “That’s really the biggest difference between Indians and white people.”

For 15 years now, Sherman Alexie has explored the struggle to survive between the grinding plates of the Indian and white worlds. He’s done it through various characters and genres, but “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” may be his best work yet. Working in the voice of a 14-year-old forces Alexie to strip everything down to action and emotion, so that reading becomes more like listening to your smart, funny best friend recount his day while waiting after school for a ride home.Which, by the way, Arnold doesn’t have. Unless his folks get lucky and come up with some gas money.

Barcot, Bruce (2007). The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/11/books/review/Barcott3-t.html.

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