The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007) is the first book written by Sherman Alexie (illustrated by Ellen Forney) specifically for a young adult audience. I finished it in two days but have been holding onto my copy because I’ve been having a hard time articulating why I might love this book.
If you have read anything by Alexie, you know that he writes about life on the Spokane Indian reservation in Washington. In Reservation Blues Alexie described the misadventures of Thomas Builds-the-Fire and his friends as they try to start a band (and deal with the relative fame that follows). Like Reservation Blues, this novel is filled with equal parts humor and tragedy along with some memorable characters thrown in to taste. What surprised me about Diary is that it is also more biting that Reservation Blues. At times Alexie’s descriptions of white-Indian relations and life on the rez are so scathing that they’re painful to read. And yet . . . I couldn’t put the book down.
Now that you are sufficiently intrigued, let’s talk about the plot.
This story revolves around Arnold “Junior” Spirit, his family and his best friend, Rowdy. We join Arnold at the beginning of the novel at the age of 14. Born with a variety of physical ailments, Arnold is used to being picked on. He doesn’t mind, though, because he knows he has his art and his intelligence and his family. Things get complicated for Arnold when he realizes that he has to leave the reservation in order to get a good education and succeed where most of his family and friends have failed. So Arnold starts going to the all-white school in a neighboring all-white town.
As the story progresses, Arnold grapples with his decision and trying to figure out his identity in his new surroundings. With the additions of love, rivalry, and basketball Alexie has enough twists to keep the most impatient readers enthralled. The illustrations by Ellen Forney also really add to the text.
In Reservation Blues and some of his other works, Alexie brings up the issue of alcoholism and heavy drinking on the reservation. The subject comes up again here. I can’t say that I understand heavy drinking as a past time in general–it remains equally perplexing here. At the same time, Alexie aptly shows the damage that one too many bottles of . . . whatever . . . can cause, which is part of why I think this novel is really important.
But you won’t be reading this book just because I happen to think it’s important. No. I expect that you will find yourself charmed by Arnold and his unique outlook on life and opportunity. I know I did.
Like Alexie’s other writing, this book is poetic and beautiful but still razor sharp.
When I finished reading, I didn’t know what to say–so much so that I wanted to immediately re-read it. (It’s the kind of book that you can do that with.) I think that’s the best response you can have to a book: when it’s so good it leaves you speechless.