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

12 Nov


In the interest of full disclosure, let me first say that I had the hardest time getting into "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian." I thought the book was a little slow in the beginning as it introduced Arnold Spirit, Jr., a Spokane Indian afflicted with childhood brain damage. Arnold ("Junior" to his Native American friends and family members) lives on a reservation with alcoholic parents and a sister who hides in the basement. His best friend, Rowdy, is a violent, short-tempered bully. Arnold himself gets beat up on a pretty regular basis by teens and adults alike. Despite — or maybe because of all this — Arnold can envision a better life for himself, one free of the alcoholism, poverty, and hopelessness that afflicts so many of his fellow tribe members.

As his freshman year begins, Arnold makes a brave decision to leave the backward reservation school for Reardan High School, an exclusively white school located 22 miles from his home. Once Arnold begins attending Reardan, the pace of the book — and my own interest level — picked up considerably. Yes, as you might suspect, Arnold initially gets picked on by other students who view him as a freak because he's (a) Native American, and (b) a skinny geek with thick glasses. But Arnold is able to break through all kinds of stereotypes by challenging a bully, befriending the most popular girl in class, studying with a fellow smart nerd, and even joining the basketball team. Arnold's newfound confidence in himself helps him to excel at basketball, and he even leads the Reardan team in several crucial battles against the reservation school. The longer Arnold attends Reardan, the more he becomes a new, stronger, but possibly "less Indian" person.

The book is narrated by Arnold in short, spare, easy-to-read paragraphs interspersed with cartoons depicting various aspects of Arnold's life. Author Sherman Alexie is a poet, and there are some really beautiful, heartfelt descriptions that will literally make you stop everything and re-read them. That's the unexpected and ultimately satisfying thing about this book; Arnold can go from being a gross, foul-mouthed, immature teenager to someone who can share all his pain and sorrow and hopes and fears in truly special ways. So while you might start off disliking Arnold, just as I did, I have a feeling he'll win you over with his great combination of grit, humor, and honesty. Plus, this is one of the few teen novels that explores in any level of depth life on a reservation, so for that reason alone, it might be worth checking out. For fans of comic-style novels, and for anyone looking for a funny, touching, quick read, this will be a good choice. Since there's lots of rough language, I'd recommend it for boys and girls high school age and up.

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Posted by on November 12, 2007 in Uncategorized


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