The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
by Sherman Alexie
I originally bought this book because it was mentioned somewhere as a banned book. That always piques my interest.
This National Book Award winner is the story of Arnold “Junior” Spirit, a fourteen-year old Spokane Indian living with his family on a reservation in Washington. Born with hydrocephalus which resulted in numerous medical and physical problems, Junior is an outcast even among his own people. He becomes even more so when he decides to leave the “rez” – at least partially – to attend an all white school in a neighboring town, where he hopes to receive a better education and more opportunities. There, he finds himself in a strange in-between – seen as a traitor by the Indians on the rez (where he still lives with his family), and as an outcast at the all-white high school (where racism is rampant and the school mascot is – wait for it … an Indian). Over time, however, he makes a place for himself in his new school and earns the respect and friendship of his fellow students.
I have such mixed feelings about this book. I can definitely see the appeal it holds for teens. The story, which includes entertaining artwork, boldly touches on masturbation, bulimia, and taking a crap at school, among many other things. It sheds a harsh light on the poverty, alcoholism, and tragedy rampant on Indian reservations, and frankly, serves as one more example that makes me feel ashamed to be a white American. On the other hand, I had a hard time sympathizing with Junior because he really is pretty obnoxious. I would have hoped that his disabilities would serve to make him more compassionate, but he unapologetically ridicules other people for their looks or intelligence. There is also a passage in the early part of the story that stung:
” … you’re still fairly cute when you’re a stuttering and lisping six-, seven-, and eight-year-old, but it’s all over when you turn nine and ten.
“After that, your stutter and lisp turn you into a retard.
“And if you’re fourteen years old, like me, and you’re still stuttering and lisping, then you’ve become the biggest retard in the world.
“Everybody on the rez calls me a retard about twice a day. They call me retard when they are pantsing me or stuffing my head in the toilet or just smacking me upside the head.”
I don’t know. I’m really unsure if this was meant to convey disdain for bullies, or for “retards.” Again, a person can be a lot of things, but the line is drawn at being “retarded.” Nobody likes a retard, yo.
I really don’t know if Alexie means to make some social statement, or just entertain. I do know that his stories have stirred up negative reactions among Indians, many of whom call him a sell-out. This novel is apparently a faithfully rendered but somewhat fictionalized account of Alexie’s own upbringing on the Spokane Reservation.
Read it and decide for yourself.